Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Treehugger Tuesday

The New York Times published an article about the challenges facing the National Park Service and the rebuilding of the area's Gateway National Recreation Areas.

Gateway Recreation Area Faces Long Recovery After Storm’s Battering
By Lisa W. Foderaro

The usually advantageous geography of Gateway National Recreation Area, with its salt-sprayed parks, beaches and historic sites at the edge of New York City and New Jersey, put the federal lands in the bull’s-eye of Hurricane Sandy. Six weeks after the storm pummeled the region, most of the recreation area remains closed, as the National Park Service continues to clean up and restore essential elements like drinking water and sewage treatment.

Despite the enormous scale of the task, the removal of mounds of sand from roadways, along with piles of debris, has moved along at a brisk clip, in no small part because of the Park Service’s policy of importing personnel from other areas of the country when a disaster strikes. Several hundred federal employees have supplemented Gateway’s staff, working in two-week shifts.

But there are a number of more complex problems that will take months to evaluate and repair.

One quandary is presented by the two former freshwater ponds at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, where the storm surge carved a new inlet from the bay to one pond and breached the other in three places, inundating both with salt water. On Sandy Hook in New Jersey, a wastewater treatment plant was disrupted by the surge, as was the drinking water system. At Miller Field on Staten Island, a historic seaplane hangar has been condemned. And all across the recreation area, mold has started to break out in buildings where the basements were flooded.

Amid the restoration efforts, Gateway found itself having to play host to thousands of first responders from around the country.

“Gateway became the epicenter for the recovery, and we had 5,000 rescue folks in Floyd Bennett Field and Miller Field,” Gateway’s superintendent, Linda Canzanelli, said. “A lot brought in trailers and tents.”

Perhaps the most battered section of the recreation area was Sandy Hook, a 2,200-acre finger of land in Monmouth County, N.J., that juts into the Atlantic Ocean south of New York Harbor. A 13-foot storm surge washed over the hook, depositing five-foot drifts of sand along three miles of the main road. “It was like driving through the Sahara desert,” the unit coordinator for Sandy Hook, Pete McCarthy, said of the road.

Sandy Hook is closed, with no date set for reopening. Officials said they were hopeful that they would have at least portions of the area open by the summer. Four of the six beach centers, which include snack bars, bathrooms and lifeguard stations, were heavily damaged, and one, at Area E, is still hemmed in by the sand dunes that fill a vast parking lot. Nearby, a long pier where birders once scanned the bay for winter ducks was swept away.

Power was knocked out to all 190 buildings on Sandy Hook, many of them at Fort Hancock, the former military base at the northern end. Flooding damaged a theater building there, as well as homes along Officers’ Row, where some front porches now dangle precariously. While power is slowly coming back, the damage to the wastewater treatment plant remains, and several nonprofit agencies that lease space there, including a few environmental groups and a day care center, have been forced to relocate to the mainland indefinitely.

One of the stranger restorative tasks relates to Sandy Hook’s history as a military headquarters, which dates to the Revolutionary War, when the British defended the lighthouse, built in 1764, against the Continental Army. In the 1890s, the government began erecting a network of harbor defense batteries, and the Park Service has sought to encourage tourism in recent years with tours of the mysterious bunkers.

But that military heritage involved artillery testing, and Mr. McCarthy realized that Hurricane Sandy might have uncovered unexploded ordnance. Last week, a crew of 15 technicians began sweeping the seven-mile beach with metal detectors, in search of unspent shells. “This is a precaution,” he said. “We haven’t found any yet.”

About 16 miles to the northeast, as the osprey flies, Dave Taft, the coordinator of the recreation area’s Jamaica Bay Unit, is more worried about the welfare of the hundreds of migrating birds for whom the wildlife refuge is an important stopover. The main structure at the refuge, the new visitor center, came through the storm unscathed, and throngs of Park Service employees have cleared trails and beaches of the downed branches and propane tanks that floated across the bay.

But the birds are a concern because of the loss of the two freshwater ponds. No decision has been made about whether to fill in the inlet that was cut into West Pond. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has already corrected the three breaches at East Pond, where workers replaced the subway tracks that had washed away. Still, the salt water is now locked in, and pumping it out and replacing it with fresh water would be time-consuming and expensive.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the ponds were artificial, created under the direction of Robert Moses, the all-powerful parks chief, when the land was set aside as a refuge in the 1950s. Their presence led to a surge in the number of migratory birds that stop off there, and subsequently, visitors.

“Most birds are not going to be happy,” Mr. Taft said. “There are a lot of freshwater organisms that the birds feed on, and while sea gulls can drink salt water, birds and ducks generally require fresh water for drinking.”

Among the migrants that may now find the refuge less appealing are ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers, scaups and canvasbacks. “We wonder if they’ll be back,” said Mr. Taft, watching as the water flowed out of West Pond during a recent ebb tide, through the new inlet. Now, “when low tide reaches its peak, West Pond is just an extensive mud flat.”

Ms. Canzanelli, who has yet to put a price tag on the damage across all of Gateway, called the fate of the refuge’s ponds an “interesting question,” explaining that the juxtaposition of salt water and fresh was a “fairly scarce commodity in New York City.” With rising sea levels, she had known that the ponds were vulnerable to the incursion of bay water. But, she said, “I didn’t think it would be quite this quick.”

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