MANTOLOKING, N.J. – On the surface, things look calm and placid. Just beneath the waterline, however, it’s a different story.
Cars and sunken boats. Patio furniture. Pieces of docks. Entire houses. A grandfather clock, deposited in a marsh a mile from solid land. Hot tubs. Tons of sand. All displaced by Superstorm Sandy.
“We did a cleanup three weeks ago. Then when we went back the other day, you could still see junk coming up in the wash,” said Paul Harris, president of the New Jersey Beach Buggy Association, which helps take care of beaches on which the group goes surf fishing. “They go and clean it again, and two days later, you have the same thing again. There’s nothing you can do about it; you can’t vacuum the ocean.”
Coastal areas of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are racing to remove untold tons of debris from waters hardest hit by the Oct. 29 storm before the summer swimming and boating seasons begin – two of the main reasons people flock there each year and the underpinning of the region’s multibillion-dollar tourist industry.
The sunken debris presents an urgent safety issue. Swimmers could cut themselves on submerged junk, step on one of thousands of boardwalk nails ripped loose, or suffer neck or spinal injuries diving into solid objects. Boats could hit debris, pitching their occupants overboard, or in severe cases, sinking.
The cleanup won’t be easy, fast or cheap.
“The amount of debris that needs to be removed is mind-boggling,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, ticking off the statistics in his state: 1,400 vessels sunk, broken loose or destroyed during the storm. In just one shore town alone, Mantoloking, 58 buildings were washed into Barnegat Bay, along with eight vehicles, and a staggering amount of sand carried from the ocean beaches into the bay.
“Everything you can imagine is sitting in our waterways,” he said.
Barnegat Bay is likely to have some no-go zones in place for at least part of the spring and summer as cleanup work progresses. “Big Al” Wutkowski, a locally famous striped-bass fisherman who volunteers as the Barnegat Bay Guardian for the American Littoral Society environmental group, is worried about what still lurks beneath the waves.
“When people start putting their boats back in the water in April, I know they’re going to start hitting stuff,” he said. “It’s impossible not to hit stuff. It’s also a lot shallower in places now.”
Florida-based contractor AshBritt Environmental removed 42 boats from New Jersey waterways in recent weeks. Others were corralled by the State Police, or by private salvage companies acting on behalf of owners.
Property owners are not being held financially responsible for debris that washed or blew off their property into waterways unless they hire a private company to retrieve a boat they plan to repair and keep, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The state, which issued contracts last week for the water cleanup work, plans to seek full reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of $60 billion in Sandy relief approved by Congress.
Much of the work will involve cranes atop barges that pluck the largest debris from the bottom. Divers could be used for smaller pieces. Once that’s done, many waterways will need to be dredged, with the sand placed back on beaches.
New York and Connecticut face similar problems.
Rob Weltner, president of Operation Splash, said the Freeport, N.Y., volunteer group has spent the past 20 years collecting 1 million pounds of debris, mostly from waterways on the south shore of Long Island.
“Twenty years is out the window,” he said. He added, “We just had that place looking beautiful and it’s going to take us another 10 or 15 years to get it back looking decent again.”