What Hurricane Sandy did to the Rockaways in New York City in a day has taken more than three years to repair—and the work is not done yet.
That is an indication not only of the devastation caused by Sandy, but of the scope and complexity of working in a harsh environment along the ocean’s edge while coordinating with multiple city agencies and allowing the public access to city parks and beaches.
The challenges are particularly acute at one of the larger—and arguably most visible—segments of area recovery efforts: reconstruction of the historic five-mile boardwalk.
The Rockaways, also known as Rockaway, are a collection of urban communities that populate a slender peninsula about 11 miles long on the southern edge of the borough of Queens. On one side of the peninsula is Jamaica Bay, on the other is the Atlantic Ocean.
The area is probably best known for its subway accessible beaches and the boardwalk, on which Sandy wreaked havoc in October 2012—destroying or washing away huge sections and depositing sand and debris on adjacent houses and apartment buildings as well.
Even before the storm slammed into the Rockaways, New York’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation had been planning to replace the aging wooden boardwalk, built in the 1920s and ’30s, with a concrete boardwalk.
After Sandy, those plans took on a new urgency, and the city, under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, made a commitment to have Rockaway’s beaches open by the summer of 2013.
The boardwalk, however, is more than just a walkway for summer strollers. In addition to being a treasured asset to the Rockaways community, it is the first line of defense against a repeat of Sandy’s devastation.
More than $140 million was spent to repair and restore the beach for the 2013 summer season. Led by the Dept. of Parks and Recreation and the city Dept. of Design and Construction (DDC), modular bathrooms and lifeguard stations were installed, intact sections of the boardwalk were repaired and six concrete “islands” were built around critical infrastructure such as bathrooms and lifeguard stations.
While that work was underway, at least a half dozen city agencies were working closely with the community to develop plans for a second phase that would connect the islands with a new boardwalk complete with access points, amenities and pipes and wires for water and lighting.
The agencies—among them Parks and Recreation, DDC and the Dept. of Transportation—broke the project into five phases with three sub-phases. The first two phases of the boardwalk reconstruction—from Beach 86 Street to Beach 106 Street—were completed and open to the public for the 2015 summer season, which saw an “unprecedented” turnout of more than 7 million visitors, says Dorothy Lewandowski, the Queens borough commissioner at the Parks Dept.
The final construction phases are now underway and are reaching a crescendo, driven in part by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to have the entire boardwalk open by this Memorial Day.
“To meet the mayor’s commitment to bring a stronger, more resilient and continuous boardwalk to the Rockaway community by Memorial Day 2016, a phased approach was implemented,” says Dan Colangione, vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corp., the managing agency for the reconstruction project. “This approach allowed for construction to proceed in some areas as design and community outreach continued in others.”
The phased approach is getting the job done, but because of a tight time line, it is not being done in a linear fashion, which makes for a more complicated work flow. Phase 3 , which encompasses the most western portion of the boardwalk project from Beach 126 Street to Beach 108 Street, is underway, but some parts of it were put on hold while the parks department and the economic development agency worked with community members to finalize design plans such as access ramps. Phases 4, also underway, and 5a, which began last fall, pick up where work on Phases 1 and 2 was completed and move eastward, from Beach 86 Street to Beach 19 Street.
The entire boardwalk is scheduled to open this summer, but when the beach season ends, a final phase of work—5b—will involve demolishing a wooden section that is still intact and replacing it with concrete in time to open by Memorial Day 2017. The cost of Phases 2 through 5 is $341 million, which is to be reimbursed to the city by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In retrospect, the work on that final section may seem leisurely compared with ongoing work, participants say. “The work is reaching a peak right about now,” says Jim Brown, project executive for Skanska, the construction manager at-risk for the job.
At peak, there are about 100 workers on the job as well as three cranes and four pile-driving rigs. Across all phases of the project, there are about 20 pieces of heavy equipment, he says. Because of the sequencing, some of the heavy lifting, such as pile driving and laying concrete slabs, is still underway on Phase 3, as well as on Phases 4 and 5a.
The first order of work, even before the first two phases of reconstruction could begin, was to replace the beach. Sandy washed 1.5 million cu yd of sand out to sea. Between June 2013 and April 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged and pumped more than 3.6 million cu yd back on to the 6.2-mile-long beach, according to Corps spokesman James D’Ambrosio.
The $36.4-million project made the beach wider and higher, providing additional risk reduction, D’Ambrosio says.
In addition, the new boardwalk is higher than the old one. It will be 3 ft above the 100-year floodplain elevation as determined by FEMA and will also be significantly heavier than the wooden pile-concrete cap construction of the old boardwalk.
With the beach restored, the contractors began reconstruction, sinking piles and H-piles into the sand and slipping sections of 8- to 10-ton concrete slabs that serve as a sand wall into place.
The sand wall sits under the land side edge of the boardwalk. The boardwalk itself is made of 30-ft, 15-ton concrete slabs, 4,723 of them in all, that sit on 820 pile caps that weigh 30 tons each. The pile caps are anchored to 5,500 steel pipe pilings that vary in diameter from 18 to 24 in. and are driven 30 ft to 40 ft into the sand.
Brown says the work on Phase 3 is about half done and the whole job is on track to meet the Memorial Day deadline. But for about a one-mile section of that work there is an even earlier deadline.
No work can be done in sections 4b, 5a and 5b between April 1 and Aug. 31. That is the breeding period for the piping plover, one of the many Rockaway residents that have to be taken into account. As Borough Commissioner Lewandowski noted of New Yorkers, “We all cohabitate.”