Just over four months after Superstorm Sandy swamped the Rockaway peninsula in New York City, leaving it battered and bewildered, I am standing where the boardwalk used to be with Dan Brown, a filmmaker, and John Cori, an electrician. Both are local guys who grew up in this remote part of Queens. Both are trying to figure out how to save this beach, and this neighborhood.
Today, there is a cold wind blowing in from the Atlantic, gusting up to 50 miles an hour. Waves of 8 to 14 feet are predicted. The National Weather Service has issued a coastal flood warning. Facing into the stiff breeze is a little like being blasted with a cold hairdryer that is blowing sand.
We retreat for protection between concrete stanchions, former supports for the boardwalk where every day last summer thousands of New Yorkers walked, rode bikes, toted surfboards, ate ice cream, and washed the sand out from between their toes. That seems a long time ago now.
This is a relatively mild nor’easter, but here at Beach 86th Street the storm is driving the waves well up onto what is left of the beach, collapsing the chain-link fence that the city's Parks Department has erected to secure the ruined concession stands. As the three of us talk about what we’re seeing, shouting to be heard over the surf and wind, we sometimes have to clamber up onto the crumbling cliff of sand next to the bare stanchions to avoid getting caught by the frothing water.
John Cori knows this beach as well as anyone. He grew up here. Over the course of his lifetime, he has watched the waves go in and out and the level of the sand rise and fall. "In the 70s, when I was a kid, we used to play under here," he says. "There was probably 10 to 15 feet less of sand here. We used to swing out into the waves on a rope and ride the surf back into the boardwalk."
The sand was replenished at times, but as for all beaches in the area, erosion is a constant problem. As Maura O’Connor wrote in an extensive article about the post-Sandy Rockaways last November in the New York World, Cori has been working for years to get anyone in power to listen to what he had to say about the Rockaways’ vulnerability to storm surges. Studies were commissioned and some sand was moved in, but a comprehensive response never materialized.
"I’ve been trying to bring this massive erosion issue to the attention of elected officials for a long time," says Cori. Bureaucracy and the longtime political impotence of this far-flung part of the city contributed to the tepid response his warnings received, he says. He just couldn’t get people in power to pay attention to what he had to say.
In the summer of 2012, when federal officials were talking about where to put dredged sand from an Army Corps of Engineers project, Cori was quoted in the local paper, The Wave:
"From the last storm we lost 30 percent of the sand and we are now 30 percent more vulnerable,” said John Cori, founder of Friends of Rockaway Beach. “I am concerned by the lack of urgency from the parks department and other city agencies that are allowing our neighborhood to remain in such immediate danger and willing to take such chances with the possible devastation of our boardwalk and surrounding neighborhoods.
On October 28, 2012, when Sandy came ashore in the New York area, Cori’s worst predictions came true. The boardwalk in many parts of the Rockaways was reduced to splinters. Water and sand surged through the streets, flooding hundreds of homes, including Cori’s.
He takes no pleasure in it, but John Cori told you so.
"John Cori Warned You" is the working title of a documentary Brown has been shooting since he got laid off from his job back in December. The title comes from a graffiti message on the wall of a seaside handball court, since demolished. It features local residents, including Cori and his friend Eddy Pastore, talking about their fight to save this precarious 11-mile piece of shoreline – a fight that used to be a lot lonelier. Sandy changed that. “We’ve become a town of activists," says Brown. He hopes to finish the film in time for a local premiere in April.
Since Sandy hit, Cori has renewed his calls for more infrastructure to protect the shoreline community -- which is really several communities, from wealthy to working-class to poor. One thing he thinks would make a big difference is rock jetties, as they are known locally (they are technically called groins). Cori points out that on the eastern part of the Rockaway peninsula, where there are such jetties jutting out into the sea already, the damage to the beach was less. “I want to see every possible thing that’s out there,” he says. “We need jetties, we need dunes, and we need a very strong boardwalk.”
But jetties are expensive. And some experts say they are not always effective. “It’s a complex issue,” says Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus of geology at Duke University whose specialty is barrier island coastlines. He says jetties wouldn’t necessarily be his first line of defense. “If I was king of the Rockaways, I would move buildings back and put in beach nourishment," he says.
Jetties, Pilkey admits, could potentially make that "nourishment" – sand brought in from dredging – last longer. But they can also diminish the quality of the beach by creating barriers to climb over. And in some cases, such as Hurricane Hugo’s landfall on the South Carolina coast in 1989, he has seen them cause sand to flow out to sea even faster.
In the end, Pilkey says, during an era when shorelines are changing rapidly, it’s going to become harder and harder to justify the expense of fortifying them – whether with beach nourishment or infrastructure such as jetties.
"Sea level is rising," he says. "As sea level rises, we anticipate beach nourishment will be less and less successful. And I think we will see less and less willingness on the part of our inland residents to throw sand into the sea – money into the sea, which is what it is." Pilkey says that he is more sympathetic to year-round residents such as the people in the Rockaways than he is to people who just own summer homes, but that all residents of such communities need to acknowledge the changing reality. "They’ve got to face the fact that living next to a moving shoreline, when your time comes, your time comes."
Cori and Brown say that they are aware of the risks inherent in living where they do. Cori says he knows that homeowners will have to shoulder financial responsibilities themselves, and that FEMA can’t keep bailing people out the way it has in the past. But they, and many others in the Rockaways, are skeptical of proposed government buyouts of shorefront property, calling such proposals "a land grab." They aren’t planning on leaving their close-knit community.
If the government is going to act to rebuild the beaches in a meaningful way, as it has promised, Cori says, it can’t wait for several more hurricane cycles to get the job done properly. Right now, today, his community is vulnerable to the next storm. And he’s not going to stop telling elected officials and bureaucrats what he thinks they should be doing anytime soon.
"Hey Dan," says Cori with a smile as we bump along the streets of the Rockaways in his beat-up old van. "The movie you’re making is called, ‘John Cori Warned You.’ But he’s still warning you."
He shakes his head. "It’s a sad situation. The sense of urgency is just zero."