In 2012, one of the largest weather events in New York’s recorded history swept across the state’s southeastern border. Superstorm Sandy’s wrath bore down as counties upstate and on Long Island were still recovering from the devastating flood waters and wind damage brought by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in late summer 2011. Fourteen counties were declared federal disaster areas, thousands of lives were affected, countless miles of roads closed or washed out, and hundreds of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed by storm surge and catastrophic flooding. However, in typical New York style, once the storm subsided, people from across the state came together to begin the recovery effort.
Five years after the storms, the state is continuing to invest funds in order to ensure that New York is more resilient and better prepared to withstand future storm impacts. Although most of the attention has understandably focused on housing reconstruction and high-profile infrastructure proposals, there is a quieter, but no less critical story to be told, about our State Parks. Led by the tireless efforts of Governor Andrew Cuomo, state government has worked closely with local governments and community organizations to make the state park system more resilient than ever.
According to a recent report by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR), the state has received over $4 billion in Community Development Block Grants for disaster recovery (CDBG-DR) from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The CDBG-DR program was implemented by HUD in the 1970s to promote long-term recovery efforts in communities affected by disasters. Through this program, managed by GOSR, approximately $111 million of these funds have been invested toward resiliency improvements at four State Park facilities – Robert Moses, Jones Beach and Hempstead Lake State Parks on Long Island, and Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx.
One of the jewels of the state park system, Jones Beach State Park on Long Island’s south shore welcomes nearly six million visitors to swim, sunbathe, recreate and relax at its white sandy beaches every year. Less than 20 miles from New York City, the park is a vital public resource for the millions of residents and visitors in the community. During Sandy, the park suffered significant damage to its buildings and infrastructure. Thanks to $4 million in grant funding from GOSR, State Parks will be able to upgrade the park’s drainage infrastructure to slow down and filter stormwater runoff and help improve water quality at the popular Zach’s Bay swimming area. The project also includes funding to install flood resistant doors and windows on select buildings with critical infrastructure. Further, by incorporating native plantings and continuing to conserve the large natural areas in the park, the landscape can better buffer the impacts of storms on facilities in the park and around the bay.
Robert Moses State Park, located on the western end of Fire Island, is best known for its five miles of public beaches which receive over four million visitors a year. The beaches and dunes on barrier islands, like those at Jones Beach or Robert Moses, serve as a crucial buffer between the open ocean and the coastal towns, helping to reduce the damaging effects that can occur during storm events. The natural habitats, animals, and plants of these places are adapted to the changing shoreline and the movement of sand, but roads and homes are not. During Sandy, Robert Moses State Park experienced severe erosion of its beaches from wind, waves, and heavy surf. Though nature would likely restore these beaches over time, there was high risk of damage to roads and buildings in the park. Grant funds through the CDBG-DR program helped stabilize these vulnerable areas of the park by nourishing those sections of beaches to return them to their pre-storm conditions. Additional CDBG-DR funding will also go toward replacing the park’s existing water treatment plant with a newer, more flood-resistant facility elevated above the current flood zone.
Improvements are also underway at Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx, which spans 25 acres along the Harlem River in the Morris Heights neighborhood. The park provides recreational facilities for underserved communities in the region in addition to serving as a coastal barrier for residents and local infrastructure, including the nearby River Park Towers residential complex and an adjacent Metro North station. During Sandy, floodwaters rose to more than three feet above the park’s 40-year-old bulkhead, damaging the park’s lower plaza and esplanade. CDBG-DR funds will be used to give this critical neighborhood gathering place a much-needed makeover. The outdated bulkhead will be replaced, and the esplanade will be rebuilt with modern infrastructure elements and green design (including landscaping with plants native to this area). These efforts will create a more stable, resilient shoreline and park facility.
Finally, plans are under development to invest $35 million in CDBG-DR funds at Hempstead Lake State Park on Long Island, as part of the larger $125 million Living with the Bay project. The Living with the Bay project aims to connect communities along Nassau County’s Mill River watershed and strategically install protective measures to help mitigate flooding, improve water quality, and enhance the overall ecology from Hempstead Lake State Park to the South Shore Estuary. As part of the overall project, major improvements will be made to the park, including rehabilitating a century-old dam and non-functional control systems, renovating multi-use trails, constructing fishing piers and boat launches, dredging park ponds (to increase water storage capacity during flood events), and constructing a “floatables catcher” to help capture trash that flows into the park during heavy rain events. A multi-purpose educational facility will also be constructed and will serve as a coordination center during emergencies.
Storms are a natural and often necessary part of maintaining our coastal ecosystems, but can be devastating to our homes, our communities, and businesses. Although New York has made tremendous progress recovering from the damages suffered during Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee, there is still more work to be done. Governor Cuomo, recognizing the value of our parks to the state’s economy and to the health and well-being of its residents, has helped marshal the resources the agency needs for both immediate rebuilding and more strategic long-term recovery efforts. New York will continue to invest in its state parks to help us continue to become more resilient and able to meet the challenges yet to come.
Post by Ben Mattison, Excelsior Fellow, State Parks