Challenges ahead in rebuilding of Ocean Parkway

Photo credit: Steve Pfost | Dunes blow sand over the damaged section of Ocean Parkway as the water encroaches east of Jones Beach in Wantagh. (Nov. 16, 2012)

November 17, 2012

It will take a long time, dune-sized piles of cash and perhaps difficult choices to restore Ocean Parkway, devastated by Sandy, to the scenic four-lane seashore drive and speedy commuting bypass generations of Long Islanders have enjoyed. 

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to announce the partial reopening of the parkway, perhaps by next weekend. A temporary fix will turn the westbound side of the roadway -- the lanes farther from the ocean -- into a two-way road with a single lane in each direction. 

A longer-term solution will require a complex calculation of what's technically and financially feasible and what's politically palatable. Restoring the dunes is one part of the possible equation. Elevating the 15.7-mile roadway -- which would alter the landscape around the parkway -- is another. 

"It's a lot more complex than moving bulldozers . . . this is not easy for elected officials," said Drew Sachs, vice president of disaster services at Witt Associates, a consulting firm founded by former FEMA director James Lee Witt.

"The first-phase response after a disaster is comparatively easy, but when it comes to the recovery phase, everyone wants a say on what they need, and different agendas come into play." 

As for cost, officials can't yet estimate what the federal government and state might be able to fund given the fiscal crunch, other priorities and the overall damage from Sandy: Cuomo has asked for $30 billion in federal help for New York alone. 

The Oct. 29 storm not only took lives and devastated Long Islanders' homes, it literally reshaped the beaches, destroying protective dunes along the South Shore.

With the dunes obliterated, the Atlantic roared over much of the parkway. On a strip of the eastbound road two miles west of Gilgo Beach, parts of the right-hand lane look as if they were struck by an earthquake. Slabs of pavement rise awkwardly like misplaced jigsaw puzzle pieces. 

Days after Sandy, with the roadway's substructure exposed by the storm, and an impending nor'easter that arrived Nov. 7, contractors working around the clock dumped thousands of tons of sand to form a protective berm for the road.

Last week, the westbound side of the road was open only to residents of the beach communities returning to check on their ravaged properties.

Neither state parks nor transportation department officials would comment on when the parkway will again open to the public, but sources at three state agencies said an announcement from Cuomo could come as soon as this week. 

"Work is continuing on Ocean Parkway and we don't yet have a date for reopening," said Eileen Peters, state DOT spokeswoman on Long Island.

While state parks officials have pledged they will have Jones Beach open in time for Memorial Day, finding -- and funding -- a longer-term solution for the parkway could take considerably more time, said Sachs, a FEMA veteran who toured Ocean Parkway last week.

Engineers will advise on what is technically do-able, with two options -- or a combination -- in the mix, said Sachs: dune restoration and possible raising of the roadway.

There are construction techniques used around the country to raise roads, making them less at risk of flooding, where the road essentially becomes the seawall, he said. But that option also requires more land for the roadway and can be costlier and take longer. It also can create clashes pitting engineers against environmentalists.

"People's emotional tie to the location and their willingness to accept physical changes to the landscape that road-raising needs requires government to engage with the community, and that takes time," Sachs said.

The parkway, a ribbon of beauty that runs from the Jones Beach water tower in the west to Captree State Park in the east, is no ordinary road.

For generations, it has been a passage to paradise for millions of New Yorkers, a route to escape a steamy summer or to enjoy the quiet contemplation of a beach on a winter's day. It is the road that led to the oceanside scene depicted in sepia-toned faded photographs of grandparents and long-lost aunts and uncles after picnics or a dip in the surf.

The beach and road are inextricably linked. The dunes protect the road, which stabilizes the coastal barrier island, which, in turn, protects bayfront communities along Long Island's mainland.

On Friday, Scott Zukowski, 25, of Wantagh, a regional history doctoral student at Stony Brook University, cut a lonely figure walking the beach between Jones and Tobay beaches.

What he saw blew his mind -- the flotsam and jetsam Sandy left included an 8-by-10-foot chunk of boardwalk torn as if made of paper and later washed up miles east of its original location. A reddish-brown stain stretched for miles along the sand, the effect of sediment washed back from the scrub behind the now-destroyed dunes.

"Jones Beach is the heart of Long Island," he said Saturday. "Each child of each generation goes there; it's part of our identity -- I felt I had to go bear witness to the destruction there to help understand what happened." 

The road also has become an important east-west artery.

Without Ocean Parkway, up to 20,000 vehicles a day, averaged over a year, are re-routing on to other key east-west roads.

State troopers say they've already noticed more congestion on the Southern State Parkway, and so officials are pressing to reopen Ocean Parkway, even if that means the drive -- normally with a maximum 55 mph speed limit -- is more closely akin to the sedate speeds driven in the era of the road's original builder, Robert Moses.

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