June 25, 2016
Don and I left New York Harbor on Saturday morning. It was flat calm as we cruised past Ellis Island and a coast guard cutter protecting the Statue of Liberty. A dozen tankers were at anchor, probably waiting for the price of oil to rise before delivering their cargo. If the price of oil rose just a few cents it could increase their profits by tens of thousands of dollars.
On the train home a businessman told me that oil companies were now buying extra tankers so they would have enough capacity to be able buy cheap oil in the Middle East and hold it in floating storage tankers waiting for the price to go up and still be able to deliver enough oil at existing prices to maintain their cash flow. And we thought all the gangsters were back in Jersey City.
Soon we were under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and into the busy Ambrose Channel. On our left was Breezy Point where a gas main had exploded during Hurricane Sandy creating a post apocalyptic hell of flooded homes and greasy fires – fires that covered several blocks and left more than two hundred people homeless.
But as we cruised into the lee of Sandy Hook we started to discover a different world. The blue square sails of bull rakers appeared on the horizon. The watermen were using the sails to pull their boats over the flats while the rakers scratched the bottom for clams.
It was a back breaking but honest way to make a living, if you could still afford to live in the traditional blue-collar sections of Atlantic Highlands. But that had become much more difficult after the storm.
We could understand why as we approached Atlantic Highlands. Route 36 bifurcates the small city. Almost all of the hurricane-damaged houses had been on the low-lying east side of Highway in an area called the Flats.
After the storm, there had been talk of moving the remaining buildings across the highway to the Highlands. It would have made a lot of long-term sense.
Instead the city decided to opt for a short-term solution. They built large new homes on pilings behind a massive steel bulkhead that held back eleven feet of fill. They had essentially raised the Flats eleven feet in the air. But who could afford such homes, certainly not watermen. It was a kind of post storm gentrification that would see time and again as we cruised down the coast.
Tim Dillingham from the American Littoral Society drove us over the Sea Bright Bridge where we met Pete McCarthy superintendent of the Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreational Area. Gateway includes many of the areas we had motored past in both New York and New Jersey. The park had been cobbled together between parcels owned by the Army, the Navy the Coast Guard plus city and state parks. It included all of Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, Breezy Point in Queens and Fort Wadsworth under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on Staten Island. Its equivalent would be the Golden Gate Recreational Area in San Francisco.
But Gateway’s biggest unit was the 12-mile long barrier spit called Sandy Hook that has grown a mile closer to New York since the late 1800’s. At one point over 10,000 soldiers and officers were stationed at Sandy Hook’s Fort Hancock where they manned a series of gun batteries that protected the entrance to New York harbor.
The officers lived along Officers’ Row a neighborhood of stately 19th Century homes. One of them housed Tim ‘s office at the headquarters of the American Littoral Society. The unit also contained the oldest continually operating lighthouse in the United States, a former Nike site and a variegated landscape of marshes, beaches and ponds that attracts over 300 species of birds.
The Sandy Hook unit now has over 200 employees and services over 400,000 people. The Gateway Park itself serves over 4 million people a year making it one of the most visited parks in the country.
All of Sandy Hook’s lands, beaches and buildings are presided over by Pete McCarthy a long time veteran of the park service who takes great pride in the diversity of people who use the park for swimming, fishing and bird watching.
Pete met us in what he calls the park’s lucky truck. It was the park’s only vehicle that made it through the hurricane. But it survived only because it had been in the shop on a lift during the storm. Even so, water had come halfway up its hubcaps.
The day before the hurricane arrived, Pete decided he had to close the park and evacuate all his resident staff. It was a fortunate decision. We stopped at the park’s entrance building. There was no water in sight on either side of the spit that was over a mile wide. But he pointed to a water line that was over 5 feet high on the side of the building. It was a chilling reminder that almost the entire spit had been under flowing oceanic water. No one could have survived if they had remained on the peninsula.
Waves left 8 to 9 feet of sand in all the parking lots, maintenance buildings and restaurants, and most of dorms and houses had been severely damages. It was several days before anyone was able to make it back to the park. The Navy used amphibious landing craft to establish a beachhead to check on their property and Pete set up headquarters on the bridge leading back to the mainland. It took several months for the park’s workers to be able trickle back to their jobs; many had lost their own homes.
After the workers had a chance to evaluate the damage, Gateway held a meeting to decide when to reopen. Pete told his boss he was aiming for Memorial Day weekend.
“Make it May 1st.”
Pete looked around the room at the people who had already worked so hard and finally shrugged.
“Ok, we’ll give it a shot.”
It meant repairing the army’s former hundred-year-old water and sewer system and replacing many of the former concession stands with mobile food trucks. They discovered the trucks worked just as well and could be easily evacuated in the event of another storm.
We got the overall impression that Pete’s park rangers, working with first responders, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy, Coast Guard and state officials had accomplished a Herculean task under emergency conditions to get the park up and running again. The results were impressive. The day we visited all of the park’s 5,000 parking spaces were already full. It was the earliest day in the summer that this had ever happened.
Thousands of people from New York and New Jersey’s urban areas had set up shop for a day of fishing swimming and picnicking on a beautiful stretch of ocean beaches, dunes, marshes and fresh water ponds that looked more like Cape Cod or the Outer Banks than what you would expect only twenty miles from downtown Manhattan.
William Sargent’s latest book is Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach.