For millions of New Yorkers, the evening of October 29, 2012, was their first real, transformative encounter with the city’s vast waterfront. Certainly, before the night Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge overwhelmed river banks and dunes and protective systems, almost everyone who lives in or visits New York had crossed a bridge or been to the beach or enjoyed a peaceful moment where water and the built environment meet. But it wasn’t until October 29 that the city’s 520 miles of coastline were truly laid bare for all to see, and for hundreds of thousands to suffer.
For some New Yorkers, however, that night was a long time coming. The kayakers, surfers, fishermen and sailors that spend their days on the water surrounding the city are well aware of its awesome power. Now, a year and a half into recovery, this group of aquatic urbanites has some very particular thoughts on what happened and what should be done next.
Jens Rasmussen, a founding member of the North Brooklyn Boat Club, is an actor by trade and an adventurer and environmental advocate when time permits. He’s been leading kayak and canoe trips on the East River and Newtown Creek since 2010. “When Sandy hit,” he says, “the club could have lost everything. We keep our equipment in shipping containers at the water’s edge, and if a member hadn’t chained the container nearest to the water to an anchor onshore, that container and all the ones behind it would have floated away in the storm surge.”
“A boat we’re restoring did float away,” he continues. “The next day a team paddled out from our base in Greenpoint [in Brooklyn] to search for it and found it on some riprap in the Bronx.”
Rasmussen and the North Brooklyn Boat Club believe that wetland restoration, an idea being explored by the city, is one of the most sensible and effective strategies for protecting New York moving forward. “We know wetlands restoration is superior at storm-surge attenuation. It can absorb and dissipate very large amounts of water,” he says. “We also think it’s a good quality of life and natural beauty feature that can be added to abandoned parts of our waterfront.” Land behind the existing pockets of wetlands, he says, faired far better than the land behind bulkheads and unprotected banks.
Cody Daniels, a 42-year-old surfer who travels to Rockaway Beach in Queens whenever the waves look good, says the surf community was devastated by Sandy. “Over the years, I’ve seen big storms and huge erosion,” he says, “but Sandy just crushed Rockaway. It was third world for months afterwards.”
Surfers didn’t go back in the water for a long time. “We didn’t know what kind of chemicals or waste or chunks of trash or spears of rebar might be out there. And you don’t really want to surf when all these families are trying to piece their lives back together. There were a lot of cleanup efforts and some guys volunteered to help rebuild and provide aid.”
“I think a lot of people see the Rockaways as more vulnerable now,” he continues. “I know some homeowners want a seawall, but some others think that the waves and the ocean and what’s happening are part of what living on the beach is about. I tend to agree with them, you know, like, you have to accept that risk.”
Lech Zawadzki, an electrician who fishes in the East River says he wasn’t surprised by the storm, but the city’s response bothered him. “Rivers flood sometimes.” he says. “The mayor and the officials should know this and know how to get power back on and fix things quickly.” His own apartment didn’t have power for two weeks. “If it wasn’t for friends, my family would have been homeless. We did not know what to do and no one told us.” The gasoline shortages were a problem too. “I spent days in line for gas when I should have been working to get power back in people’s houses,” he says.
“Next time, the city needs to focus on getting the basics back quickly and telling people what to expect.”
Despite their different experiences and outlook, each of these men familiar with the rivers and oceans around New York said something about how Sandy reminded city dwellers that they’re all water people. This, they all agreed, was a good thing. “Awareness and stewardship are inextricably linked,” says Rasmussen. “It’s a central belief of the Boat Club that recreating on blue open spaces in the city, by paddling, we, New Yorkers, all people, learn to value the water and to see how our choices and policies effect the health of the water and the city.”
Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b