Driving down the West Side Highway in Manhattan every day can be unpredictable – and not just the traffic. Recently, I was stuck in a bumper-to-bumper crawl trying to enter the Lincoln Tunnel when a group of construction workers hollered to me, “Hey! How are you serving the planet?”
My vehicle has a large decal that reads “I Serve the Planet” next to a Student Conservation Association logo. I smiled and shouted back, “I’m leading a team restoring parts of Gateway National Recreation Area that were battered by Superstorm Sandy!” The workers hesitated, maybe not expecting that response, and then nodded in appreciation.
This is a HUGE recovery we’re undertaking this summer, with more than 100 local high school students, dozens of experienced SCA crew leaders working in advanced “super crews,” and another team of volunteers sponsored by American Eagle Outfitters. It’s nice to be back with SCA in this role because I love getting youth excited about conservation.
My roots with SCA go back to 2006, when I heard SCA founder Liz Putnam speak at my SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry commencement. Liz inspired me to join SCA as an environmental education intern in the Hudson Valley, and from there I went on to an SCA Exotic Plant Management Team. Seeing the destruction caused by invasive plants in our national parks led me to earn my masters in Conservation Biology at Antioch University New England. I conducted salt marsh research at Cape Cod National Seashore for my masters thesis research, and was most recently a Lead Biological Science Technician at Colorado National Monument. Liz Putnam’s example has given me the strength to continue on the conservation path.
I moved back to my hometown in Rockland County, New York, shortly before Hurricane Sandy and witnessed the storm’s destruction. My mom and I played Scrabble as the winds picked up, waiting for the power to go out. We were lucky. Even though we had damage near us, with lengthy power outages and trees down everywhere, it still was not nearly as bad as the places where my crew is working this summer.
One week we worked mostly on fence removal along the beach at Great Kills Park in Staten Island. The paths that lead to the beaches had been lined with sand fencing, but Sandy’s storm surge pretty much buried them. We didn’t quite know how deep the fence was but in no time my crew had dug at least a three foot pit. With a huge amount of determination, we were finally able to remove it as a team.
Keith White, Gateway’s volunteer coordinator, confessed there had been doubters as to our success, but we proved them wrong. A group of runners ran by us one day and shouted, “Hey, thanks so much for your help!”
We continued to clear piles of sand from around the barriers separating the beach from the parking lot. It’s almost impossible to imagine the strength this storm needed to push everything around – so, so, so much sand and debris in places they weren’t prior to Sandy!
The hurricane hit this area hard – moving sand from the oceanside at Fort Tilden all the way to Riis Landing. For days, we shoveled sand into wheelbarrows and then transported it to more appropriate areas along the beach, leveling the newly restored sand with rakes.
And when Giles Parker, the chief of staff of the National Parks of New York Harbor and an SCA alumnus, walked the site, he told us that not only are we succeeding in restoring the New York Harbor Parks to pre-Sandy conditions, but we are doing such an amazing job that Riis Landing genuinely looks better than it did before Sandy. It felt really great to hear this from the chief of staff, especially after putting in long, sweaty, rainy, monotonous labor-intensive days.
Our work was also recognized by the captain of the Riis Landing ferry. The floating ferry dock came loose during the storm and drifted nearly two miles from Queens to Plum Beach in Brooklyn. As we painted the restored dock, the captain explained he lost nearly everything in the first floor of his house, while he rode out the storm on the boat in the middle of Sheep’s Head Bay!
He was overjoyed with the work of our SCA Sandy Recovery Crew and, as a thank-you, promised to take us whale watching. A few days later, as we delighted to the sight of dolphins dancing in the boat’s wake, both the captain and the naturalist on board thanked SCA on the loud speaker and the passengers applauded. It was great to connect with the people benefitting from our restoration efforts.
This recovery work at Gateway National Recreation Area is about making a difference in people’s lives and the places they have grown to rely on – not to mention the wildlife! It’s horseshoe crab mating season, and the crabs are everywhere along the beach while we are working. We’ve flipped quite a few of them right side up, and will continue working to restore these creatures’ habitat – just as we are restoring the natural and historic landscapes that are so important to the people around New York Harbor.
And the more we can spread the word about the work we are doing – to park patrons, to affected residents, and even to construction workers on Manhattan streets – the greater impact our work will have.