By John Burton
SANDY HOOK – Even before the ribbon was cut on Wednesday morning, people had arrived, happy that Gateway National Recreation Area at Sandy Hook was again open to the public.
“The first time I saw fishermen, I wanted to jump up and down and say ‘Yea!’ ” said John Warren, a spokesman for the National Park Service, on the first day the park has been open since Super Storm Sandy crashed into the region.
As the public, representatives from the park service and elected officials began gathering, people were already visiting the park, looking to fish, cycle, walk on the beach and bird-watch.
“We had people here first thing this morning,” said Peter McCarthy, unit coordinator for the federal recreation area. “I’m sure we had some fishermen out here at 5 a.m.”
Sandy Hook, an approximately 7-mile peninsula framed by the Atlantic Ocean and Sandy Hook Bay, was pummeled by Super Storm Sandy six months ago. The historic storm caused erosion and damage to structures, the roadway and the park’s infrastructure; the park’s wastewater treatment facility is still being repaired, according to park service representatives.
The park was inundated by 13-foot tidal surges, according to U.S. Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), whose 6th Congressional District includes Sandy Hook.
The federal government allocated approximately $37 million for work at Sandy Hook, said Pallone who attended Wednesday’s ribbon cutting.
Three of the beach areas will be available for swimming by the Memorial Day weekend, though visitors will have to rely on portable restroom facilities and concession operations.
McCarthy called the last six months “exhausting,” with park employees, contractors and their workers and a regular troop of volunteers working very hard to restore the location.
The park service targeted May 1 as the opening and they made it official on Wednesday.
“We’re just happy to have it open,” McCarthy said. “It’s all positive. The support has been tremendous. It’s been great.”
Pallone told the gathering that, “Sandy Hook is very much a symbol of the Jersey Shore. It really shows how resilient the Jersey Shore is.”
The congressman also noted that the location is a vital component for the local economy, drawing business to local shops and restaurants. Its opening shows that the whole area is open for business.
“It’s all about ‘The Hook’ for the immediate area,” said Freeholder Lillian Burry, before the ceremony. “For the Highlands, for Sea Bright, it’s the soul of the area.”
Tim Hill, Highlands’ administrator, said one borough restaurant owner estimated that park traffic translated to about 25 percent of his business between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“This is our economic engine,” said Ray Cosgrove, who owns and operates Bahr’s Landing seafood restaurant in Highlands. “It was a big concern back in December if it would be open for the summer.”
Out at the northern tip at the former Fort Hancock, the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, an environmental and educational organization, was only able to return to its home about a month ago. On Wednesday it was able to conduct its first student tour of the park’s ecology for 27 fourth-graders from a Lacy Township school.
The park has “a lot to offer,” said Diana Burich, the consortium’s K-12 program coordinator. “It’s perfect for what we do. This is an opportunity to learn something new.”
The site offers learning opportunities but it also offers the beaches and a chance to get outside and experience natural beauty, she said.
Holly Hoffman, a Warren resident, and Liz Mershon of Plainfield know the park as one of the best locations for their favorite pastime – bird-watching.
“This is a wonderful location,” Hoffman said, noting they have already seen oystercatchers and willets as well as piping plover.
When they found out Sandy Hook was reopening, “We kept saying hooray,” Hoffman said.
Dawn Miller, whose Keansburg home was destroyed in the October storm, has relocated to Pennsylvania, but made a point of coming for the park’s opening.
“This is where I grew up. I came to Sandy Hook every year,” she said. “And I will again this summer.”
Miller had driven the bus for students at the Marine Academy of Science and Technology (M.A.S.T.), which had been at Fort Hancock for five years prior to Sandy. The school won’t return to that location until September. It’s now operating at the former St. Joseph’s Elementary School in Keyport, at a cost of $30,000 a month for the county, according to Burry.
Sandy Hook is visited by 2.2 million people annually; about 2 million of that total comes between Memorial and Labor days, according to McCarthy.