When the City Died at Sea

by John Delach

This is my 200th Blog. The first, “An Incredible Story” appeared on October 16, 2013 and this followed a week later. Super storm Sandy will be five years removed this October but the flooding it brought to the Metropolitan area is reminiscent of the flooding Harvey brought to Texas and Louisiana and Irma to Florida.  


Pick your place of dreams, Rockaway, Staten Island, Long Beach, or the Jersey Shore. A place of quiet and charm, on the water, away from the noise, the clutter, the things that make Gotham intolerable to ever consider living there. Sure, the Big Apple provides the infrastructure, money, the halls of commerce inviting people to come on board. The opportunity is there to make a good living, to succeed, grow, prosper and seek to achieve the American Dream. But who wants to live there?


These places of refuge provide safe alternatives to leave it all behind when the work day, or, more importantly, the work week ends. Places where people let their burdens go, as their pressures and the frustrations drift away. When the ferry touches shore at St. George, or a car or bus or train crosses a bridge and reaches Broad Channel, Rockaway, Long Beach or towns along the Shore, escape is at hand. Soon these people will be home, safe, happy and in their own element.


But, there is a trade off. By choosing to live by the beach, the water dwellers accept the challenge of the unforgiving sea. This, their ultimate fear is subsumed by the challenges of every day life, relegated to the background, rarely discussed, even when state and City fathers need to drum up “Armageddon” scenarios at the start of each hurricane season. Poor garbage collection, ordinary post-storms power restoration and slow snow removal after a typical City snow storm are enough to worry about.


But this time, it all went wrong. The enemy was the sea. The one they always warned about, the one that was the unthinkable, the “what if,” doomsday storm. This time the jet stream left the coast unprotected. A combination of a full moon, high tide and Sandy slamming into southern New Jersey produced winds and a surge that drove the Atlantic west back into the Jersey Shore, through the Narrows into New York Harbor up the Hudson and East Rivers flooding coastal Staten Island, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.


It clobbered the historic islands in the Upper Harbor; Liberty, Ellis and Governor’s destroying the low-lying buildings. Fortunately, the Statue of Liberty, Castle Clinton, Fort Jay and the Grand Hall did not suffer water damage, but the infrastructure was severely damaged.


Next, to flood; Lower Manhattan and the East Side. The surge claimed office buildings, the World Trade Center memorial, NYU and Bellevue hospitals, inundated most of the subway tubes and the two automobile tunnels under the East River. Eighty-six million gallons of the Hudson River poured into the Hugh Carey-Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The surge covered runways at LaGuardia and JFK.


The engineers on duty that night at Penn Station saved their charge. When they received word of how high the surge would be, they made a conscience decision to open the flood gates protecting the two Hudson River tunnels to funnel the inundation into these passages to New Jersey and away from the station. Their actions closed these tunnels for three days. If not, the station, its signals, electrical equipment and switches would have been out for weeks.


Flood water swept the auto receiving yards and container docks at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, raced up the Hudson River flooding trendy Hoboken wrecking PATH, the old Hudson and Manhattan Tubes. Still, further north, the Hudson topped Metro North’s Hudson Division flinging boats and debris onto tracks and flooding nearby factories and warehouses in Westchester.


Sandy sent a monstrous wall of water into shore communities along the length of Long Island crushing its barrier islands. Starting in the west at Sea Gate, it spread across Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, east along the entire Rockaway peninsular striking vulnerable Breezy Point where wind, rain and fire conspired to incinerate more than one hundred homes and water damage those that didn’t burn; R.I.P. Breezy Point.


Long Beach, Jones Beach and Fire Island were clobbered. Waterfront communities along Jamaica Bay and the Great South Bay were not spared; Broad Channel, Island Park, Freeport, Amityville, etc., Life that these folks signed onto ceased to exist. Even the train line to Long Beach and the subway line that stretched across Jamaica Bay weren’t spared. The surge destroyed electrical sub-stations, tore up the tracks and washed away the fill that supported them.


The beach communities along the North Shore and Connecticut received their dose of Sandy as the tide rose in Long Island Sound and winds pushed the surge west back towards the City drowning coastal sections of towns like Port Jefferson, Bayville and Fairfield.


Thousands of homes were wrecked, a plethora of cars destroyed and those beach life-styles, carefully planned, cultivated and developed erased, gone as if they never existed. The shore communities will never be the same. Homes may be rebuilt but minds cannot be and the daunting question will remain for all who live near the water and survived: “Do I stay, do I rebuild and what will happen the next time something this evil comes my way?”