NEW YORK (PIX11) — When Superstorm Sandy descended on New York and New Jersey, the states’ shores were the first line of defense, taking the brunt of the historic hit.

“The impacts were widespread and horrific, especially along our coastline,” Sue Donoghue, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, told PIX11 News. “[There was] extensive flooding, extensive destruction and disrepair.”

Queens’ Rockaway Boardwalk was “destroyed,” Donoghue said. Its Coney Island counterpart was left in need of “substantial repairs.”

The federal parkland of Gateway National Recreation Area — which encompasses some 27,000 acres across units centered in Jamaica Bay, Staten Island, and Sandy Hook, N.J. — was similarly hammered. Buildings were badly damaged and beaches were strewn with large pieces of concrete and other debris, National Park Service spokesperson Daphne Yun told PIX11. An entire dock became untethered at Riis Landing in Breezy Point, Queens, drifting across the Rockaway Inlet to Brooklyn’s Plumb Beach. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, also part of Gateway, suffered a “really big impact,” from Sandy, said Yun.

“Both the east and west ponds were breached, so there were actual holes,” said Yun, explaining that the damage allowed salt water to flow into the freshwater bodies, which serve as some of the few freshwater sources for migrating birds along the Atlantic Flyway.

  • Damaged boardwalk at Rockaway Beach in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
  • The scene at Rockaway Beach in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
  • Recovery in progress at Rockaway Beach after Superstorm Sandy.
  • Rockaway Beach, following Superstorm Sandy recovery
  • The Rockaway Skate Park, rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy
  • Sandpiper Playground in the Rockaways, rebuilt after Sandy
  • Damage at the marina in Great Kills Park, following Sandy
  • Damage to the Riis Bathhouse at Jacob Riis Park in Queens, following Sandy
  • A damaged path at the Sandy Hook, N.J. unit of Gateway National Recreation Area after Sandy

But as quickly as Sandy dealt a devastating blow to the region’s parks and beaches, workers from the two agencies sprang into action.

“We had come into our buildings so we could work almost 24 hours straight in those first few days,” recalled Jennifer Greenfeld, now the Deputy Commissioner for Environment and Planning at the city Parks Department. “For those first few weeks, it was all hands on deck.”

Donoghue described the action at the city level as “immediate and extensive,” with over $1 billion in combined city and federal funding invested in a decade-long recovery process that also entailed the replanting of more than 10,000 trees lost in the storm.

At Gateway, an incident team of hundreds of NPS workers from across the nation set up operations at Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth, in a response comparable to that for West Coast wildfires, said Yun. The team was on the scene well into December 2012, helping to lay the groundwork for what too would become a yearslong recovery effort. 

But as both agencies built back — and continue to build back — they did so with an openness to innovation and the lessons of Sandy.

“Every single capital project that we do has an eye towards and incorporates resiliency measures in it,” said Donoghue. “Our actions now around tree planting, around restoration, around rebuilding all have an eye towards the long-term resiliency of our parks.”

Greenfeld agreed, saying that the Parks Department was determined to rebuild, though not always to the pre-Sandy status quo.

“We want to put back what we lost,” she said. “But we were very thoughtful about not just putting exactly what was lost, but learning from Sandy and … thinking about future climate impacts as we rebuilt boardwalks, replanted trees, put back the amenities, the playgrounds, the comfort stations.”

That mindset necessitates an eye for function as well as form.

“It’s a great boardwalk,” said Greenfeld, referring to the Rockaways as an example. “You can bike on it, you can run on it. But it’s actually got infrastructure underneath it so it can withstand the storms. We think about that in other things we build: How can we build things that aren’t just about the solid infrastructure, but the added amenities? Because we are the Parks Department after all. We’re the ones who provide the fun, and interpret and make accessible the natural world.”

The process also involved the agencies figuring out what parts of their land had stood up to Sandy’s challenge.

“While there was obviously huge devastation of a lot of our built infrastructure and the trees along the coastline could not withstand the saltwater inundation, we did see amazing resiliency in our wetlands and our natural spaces, where they were able to handle the flooding,” said Greenfeld. “They looked clean and fresh. … So we learned that if we could keep our natural spaces healthy, that they can serve as really important buffers.”

The NPS also found solutions in the natural world. After the repair of the breached ponds at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which Yun said are expected to naturally transition from salt water back to freshwater with time, a “living shoreline” was constructed to safeguard against potential future impacts.

“It acts as, in a way, like [an] extra buffer if there’s more water coming in,” said Yun of the project, undertaken in cooperation with the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy. “It was oyster shells, recycled Christmas trees, a lot of different types of materials that were used to sort of build out this area, to add this buffer.”

The NPS has also elevated utilities to protect them from flooding, relocated some facilities to higher ground compared to their pre-Sandy locations, and rebuilt the severely damaged Nichols Marina at Staten Island’s Great Kills with the ability to raise and lower based on water levels.

“The docks aren’t fixed [in place],” said Yun of the latter project, completed in collaboration with the Department of Transportation. “They’re able to move up and down on the poles, so that if there is a big storm surge, they’ll just move up.”

Yun, like Donoghue and Greenfeld, described an approach based on the idea that building back didn’t have to mean building identically.

“When things were rebuilt, should they be in the same space? And a lot of times … the answer is no,” she said. “You don’t want it in the same space, because that was where there was a huge impact. It needs to be in a better space, and also built smarter and differently.”

In trying times, both then and now, natural spaces can provide escape — explaining the “devastating” feeling of their destruction in Sandy, the urgency with which they were rebuilt, and the importance of safeguarding their future, said Donoghue.

“We have seen, both with Sandy and more recently with COVID, just how important our parks and open spaces are to New Yorkers,” she said. “These instances actually helped to raise awareness of how important they are, helped New Yorkers to realize they are not a ‘nice to have,’ they’re not a luxury; they’re a necessity. … A signature event, while devastating, can also help us in the Parks Department to raise awareness and to really highlight how important our parks are.”