The communities surrounding Jamaica Bay suffered a massive hit from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge, but when the 8-10 feet of water rose on shore in Rosedale, Broad Channel, Howard Beach, and coastal Brooklyn, the place where the water came from also paid a heavy toll.
Jamaica Bay — home to one of the greatest environmental comeback stories in recent decades — may have taken a step back as a result of last month’s hurricane.
When the storm surge rushed onto shore, the water also rose in the lagoon that separates the Rockaway Peninsula from the rest of the borough.
Dan Hendrick, communications director for the New York League of Conservation Voters and producer of an upcoming documentary about Jamaica Bay, said the storm will have some permanent effects. He toured the bay with Don Riepe, Northeast Chapter president of the American Littoral Society and a Broad Channel resident, immediately after the storm.
“Hurricane Sandy literally reshaped the geography of the Rockaways,” Hendrick said.
Habitats were changed, he explained, including a section of Breezy Point where the piping plover — a protected shorebird that makes its home around the bay — mates every year.
“It’ll be interesting to see what they do when they come back in the spring,” he said.
Much of the damage to the bay consisted of debris from neighborhoods that washed away with the storm surge. Pieces of homes and garages, streetlights and cars were among the items found in the bay after the storm, from neighborhoods in both Queens and Brooklyn that were hit by the surge.
But the biggest problem was the thousands upon thousands of gallons of oil which leaked into the bay from home fuel tanks, washed from houses in Broad Channel. Hendrick said most of that oil will dissipate over time — and much of it already has — but it created an expensive mess at a time when budgets are constrained.
The oil problem was compounded with sewage also leaking into the bay because of damaged sewer lines and water treatment plants along the bay’s shore being shut down or damaged after the hurricane.
Hendrick said that the marshland in the bay, which has been under renovation for the past decade, fared well. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on the Black Wall Marsh near Broad Channel, but Hendrick said the project was not damaged by the storm and the construction equipment was moved well in advance. The wildlife refuge just to the north of Broad Channel suffered a big blow from the hurricane. Both West Pond and East Pond, where birdwatchers often come to spot shorebirds, breached into Jamaica Bay. In East Pond, the breach took out a section of the A subway line tracks which run on the narrow piece of land between the pond and the bay.
The breach in West Pond is large enough to sail a boat through, Hendrick said. West Pond previously had been completely circumvented by a pathway, and the storm washed out a section of the path on the south side of the pond creating a channel into the bay. He said he is not sure if the federal government has the finances to rebuild it.
“The question is whether or not the [National Park Service] will come up with enough of money to build a bridge there,” Hendrick said.
East Pond’s breach will likely be repaired when the subway tracks are rebuilt.
Overall, Hendrick said he believed most of the ecological issues in the bay will repair themselves because nature is “resilient,” but he suggested the storm could set a new standard for how communities prepare for and handle these weather situations.
“You have the potential to really set the example of how we deal with a changing climate and extreme weather,” he said.
Hendrick added that the rising sea level problem is also adding to the trouble in and around Jamaica Bay. A tidal gauge near Meadowmere on the eastern end of the bay has recorded the water level rising at a rate of 2 inches per decade and that threatens not only wildlife habitats but communities like Broad Channel, Hamilton Beach and Meadowmere, which sit only a few feet above the waterline of Jamaica Bay.
The rising water levels make marshland much more important because the wetlands serve as a barrier to coastal flooding.
“It only heightens the importance of those marsh restoration projects to buffer the tide,” Hendrick explained.
Hendrick hopes the recovery from Hurricane Sandy sparks a renaissance in the underutilized parkland. Noting the federal government tends to pour its limited resources into more well-known national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, he said he hopes Gateway National Recreational Area gets bumped up the priority list.
The NPS has underinvested in places like Fort Tilden on the Rockaway Peninsula, he added, expressing hope that the hurricane — as well as the Obama administration’s wish to invest more in urban parkland — will bring attention to the area.
“Maybe this is a chance to rebuild and do it right,” Hendrick said.