Article and Multimedia By Patrick Campbell
Long Island survived Hurricane Sandy but as damaged goods. Boardwalks were removed from their foundations and tossed into flooded, sand-filled streets. Dunes were destroyed and oceanfront roads were taken to sea. Waterfront homes were flooded and in some cases, left barely salvageable. Popular beach locations became mere remains of a natural disaster. As the beaches and local communities continue to recover, Long Island’s surfers have been eager to get into the water.
“I just want to surf,” said one local surfer, Mike Garite, 20, of Seaford. “I’ve been surfing Long Beach all my life; nothing like this has ever happened before.”
The shores of Long Island contribute enormously to the local economy, due to seasonal house and apartment rentals, boating, fishing and beaches. Surfers and surfing are just a tiny piece of the Long Island shore economy, but the surfing culture is strong.
In the past, the south shore of Long Island provided surfers with a fair amount of year-round surf. No matter the weather, surfers have always come to surf the local beaches when a solid swell came through, giving them their own little taste of the California surf lifestyle. The Rockaways, Long Beach, Jones Beach, Fire Island and the beaches eastward to Montauk have all served as surf spots for generations. When Sandy hit, access to these beaches suddenly became tightly restricted, leaving surfers and beachgoers wondering what can be expected for the coming summer season.
“I looked at the surf report, and saw there were waves, then I realized I would have to drive out to Montauk,” said Garite, who realized, when attempting to surf just a week after Sandy hit, that surfing on Long Island would not be quite the same or nearly as simple as it used to be. Still, he was willing to make the two-hour drive to Montauk, the easternmost point on Long Island. Once again, the effects of the storm set him back: he needed to fill up his gas tank before he could make the drive, and he had to wait so long for gas that “by the time I got there, it was already dark.”
The gas shortage that followed Hurricane Sandy has long since resolved. However, the damage from Sandy remains problematic.
Garite, like many other surfers from Nassau County, usually surfs beaches on the Long Beach barrier island. Beaches in the city of Long Beach and other public beaches, such as Lido West and Point Lookout in the Town of Hempstead, all reside on the barrier island and are known for their quality breaks. However, the damage caused by Sandy left Long Beach in shambles and restricted surfers from accessing the island, let alone getting to the beach.
Naturally, surfers looked to other beaches like Jones Beach and Gilgo Beach, which are directly east of Long Beach. However, the Jones Beach barrier island was also severely damaged. Merrick Road, the first exit north of the beach, was closed because of the damage caused by the deterioration of the dunes that separated the roads from the beach. The Wantagh State Parkway and the Meadowbrook State Parkway did not completely open up until Nov. 17.
The process of restoring Ocean Parkway is currently underway. The entire parkway is now open to two-way traffic, but a two-mile stretch, east of Jones Beach near Gilgo Beach, remains closed on the eastbound side, so the westbound side is split for two-way traffic, one lane in each direction.
According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the $32.2 million recovery plan is currently operating on schedule, and the entire highway reconstruction, including the deteriorated traffic circle at Robert Moses State Park, is on track to be finished by Memorial Day, the traditional opening of the summer season. The project, funded mostly by the Federal Highway Administration through its Emergency Relief program, recently started pavement reconstruction.
In order to replenish the beaches and dunes and to build more protection in preparation for future storms, five miles of protective dunes and native vegetation will also be replaced, Cuomo said in a news release.
“It is easy to see the damage and how much sand was washed away,” said Jones Beach lifeguard Mark Dowling, 22, of Long Beach, “especially east past Gilgo Beach. It just doesn’t look the same.”
The dredging process, which began on Feb. 8, is conducted by piping sand from the Fire Island Inlet to shore and then redistributing it in trucks to rebuild the dunes. According to Cuomo, rebuilding the dunes is nearly complete, requiring 800,000 cubic yards of sand.
“The storm is a little ways back now, but we can still feel the changes it left. We are seeing the recovery. Things change each time we go back to the beach,” said Garite.
Long Beach has come a long way since the storm hit but is still in the recovery process. The remains of the boardwalk were demolished in a ceremonial event on Jan. 5.
“It’s a bit weird surfing Long Beach without the boardwalk,” said Garite, after surfing some winter waves at Lincoln Boulevard during the first weekend of March. “Usually I turn around and people are watching from the boardwalk, but now there is just sand.”
According to a newsletter from Long Beach’s City Council President Scott J. Mandel, the new boardwalk is going to be built with far more durable materials than those of the old boardwalk. The city plans to have sections open this summer and to continue building over the course of the year. The new planks are expected to have a lifespan of 30 to 40 years, as compared with the 5 to 7 year lifespan of the old planks.
The beaches are still recovering from the disaster, but this summer, crowds can be expected to pour in just as they always do, and the surfers will continue to surf.
“As long as the sun is out, people will go to the beach,” said Dowling, speaking from his five years of experience lifeguarding at Jones Beach. “The place might look a little different, but it’s still the same sand to lie on, and the same water to play in.”
Mike Garite speaks about his efforts to surf after Hurricane Sandy limited access to many Long Island beaches.