By John Burton
SANDY HOOK – Peter McCarthy stood on a long, high and slopping hill of sand at Sandy Hook that now buries Parking Lot E – thanks to Sandy.
“Wind and water and sand,” said McCarthy, unit coordinator for Gateway National Recreational Area at Sandy Hook, as he looked out on what is left of the beach area while groups of contract workers and heavy construction equipment continue to move mountains of sand and other work on the park. “It’s just incredible the havoc it can wreak.”
McCarthy said park service officials are looking at reopening the park in time for the end of May. “I’m shooting for Memorial Day,” to have at least some of the beach areas available for use, McCarthy said. “We got seven months to figure it out.”
Four weeks after Super Storm Sandy swept in and caused incredible damage and record high tidal surges, the National Park Service continues the work of digging out and working on the long-term plans to eventually restore the park for the public’s use.
“You just look and ask, where do you begin?” McCarthy said, as he inspected the ongoing work.
The park is 7 miles long and encompasses roughly 2,000 acres between Highlands and Sea Bright from Sandy Hook Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
The park lost about 30 percent of its beaches and just about all of its dunes and dune grass, McCarthy said during a Nov. 30 tour of the park.
“When we came in on Tuesday (Oct. 30) there was about 3 miles where we had drifts that were 5 feet high,” he said, noting that much of the park’s roadway had been covered with a considerable amount of sand.
“While the dunes protected us to some degree, we lost about 80 percent of them,” with much of the park now looking something like the Sahara Desert, McCarthy said, as frontend loaders pushed large ocean- and wind-swept sand drifts.
Three of the park’s parking lots – C, D and E – “sustained a remarkable amount of damage,” he said.
The permanent picnic tables near those lots were almost completely covered with sand and many of the nearby kiosks were damaged with parts of them found all over the park, he noted.
“It was like a washing machine on the agitator cycle,” the way the surge from the bay and the ocean came up and engulfed the land, with the two bodies of water meeting, was how McCarthy described it.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think anybody has.”
There are about 190 buildings in the park and many of them were flooded and damaged. The park’s visitor center, built in 1894, had water and sand in its basement. Other locations had even more damage.
Historic Fort Hancock, a former military installation at the peninsula’s northern tip fared reasonable well.
“I came out here and was amazed at all I saw,” McCarthy said. He expected to see the fort’s old buildings completely gone or largely destroyed by the storm.
“These are pretty hardy buildings,” he observed.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there wasn’t damage. The fort, overall, was engulfed by about 5 feet of water, forcing workers in the maintenance department to use canoes to reach that portion of the fort after the storm.
The fort’s theater, which had in the last couple of years undergone renovations, had water up to the stage’s lip, with its piano floating in it.
The U.S. Coast Guard station had considerable damage, making the Coast Guard relocate operations.
The Marine Academy of Science and Technology (M.A.S.T.) was flooded. School officials brought in contractors to clean up.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility had almost no damage.
While there was damage to some of the porches on officers’ row buildings, they are “structurally sound,” McCarthy said.
The summer dormitories – two structures that house about 50 seasonal employees each summer (including lifeguards, law enforcement and interns) – sustained considerable damage, and are in the process of being rehabbed, McCarthy said.
“Obviously, mold is a condition we’re dealing with everywhere,” he said.
A bright spot was the storied lighthouse at Fort Hancock was spared, according to McCarthy.
In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, the National Park Service dispatched an incident management team to the Gateway National Parks in the New York/New Jersey area. The service transferred about 500 of its employees, personnel from Zion, Glacier, Yosemite and Big South Fork national parks, to offer assistance at the Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes Sandy Hook.
“It’s a reflection of what we’re dealing with,” McCarthy said of the large management team.
That number has dwindled from the approximately 100 first assigned to the Sandy Hook section of the recreation area to about 60. There also are still a number of contractors working at the site.
The park service hired a company to scan the area to ensure no live ordnances had washed up as the result of the storm and was buried in the sand. None has been found at this time, McCarthy said.
“The utilities are an issue we’re going to be dealing with for a while,” he acknowledged. The park has no running water or operating sewerage treatment and is operating with only about of third of the electrical power needed.
That, along with resolving other infrastructure issues, will have to be addressed before the location can be deemed safe for the public’s use, he said.
On average about 2.2 million visit the park each year, with about 2 million of them coming between Memorial Day and Labor Day, McCarthy said.
The total dollar amount of the damage has yet to be determined, he said.