NEW YORK – Just a few months ago, the parking lot at Jacob Riis Park on New York Citys Rockaway seashore was filled with happy beachgoers.
Now, it is home to a mountain of misery from Superstorm Sandy – a growing pile of garbage containing mangled appliances, splintered plywood, sodden drywall, shreds of clothing and family photos.
The seagull-pecked pile – at least two stories high, three quarters of a mile long, and fed by an endless caravan of dump trucks – is just part of a staggering round-the-clock operation along hundreds of miles of coastline to clear away the mangled mess of homes, cars and boats so the rebuilding can begin.
Three weeks in, it is an effort that has strained the resources of sanitation departments and landfill operators, and caused headaches and heartache for thousands of families in the sprawling disaster zone.
The lucky have only had to empty their basements of soggy belongings. Others have been forced to strip their flood-ravaged homes down to the studs and pile drywall, furniture, clothing and appliances on the sidewalk.
Weve seen people put virtually all their worldly possessions at the curb, said Mike Deery, a spokesman for the town of Hempstead, which includes several beach and bay hamlets on Long Islands South Shore.
Weve gone down streets and picked up the entire contents of homes, and come back the next day and have it look like we havent been there in months.
In the three weeks since the storm, New York City alone has removed an estimated 271,000 tons of wreckage from flooded neighborhoods. That doesnt include the downed limbs and trunks of some 26,000 damaged trees.
New Jersey shore towns have been adding to big piles of rubble just like the one at Jacob Riis. One of the biggest ones, in Long Branch, reaches nearly three stories into the sky from a vacant lot a block from the ocean.
Army of workers
A powerful mechanism has been at work to make it happen: In New York, the citys regular army of 6,000 sanitation workers has been supplemented by battalions of private contractors, hired under a $92 million Federal Emergency Management Agency contract administered by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Garbage barge terminals on Staten Island that were last used to remove debris from the World Trade Center after 9/11 have been pressed into service again, this time carrying Sandys wreckage up the Hudson River, toward a landfill outside Seneca Falls.
Rubble has also been moving by truck to landfills in Pennsylvania, some of which are stretched to the limit.
You are trying to drive material through a funnel that isnt quite wide enough to accept it, said John Hambrose, a spokesman for industry giant Waste Management.
He said the company has had to boost staffing and bring in 65 additional trucks and equipment from as far away as Florida and Wisconsin to handle the rubble headed for its landfills in Pennsylvania.
Up and down the coast, sanitation crews have been working seven days a week, including holidays, since the storm hit, starting before dawn and continuing into the night, when the task of handling nail-studded debris gets dicey. Some of the workers are spending their days off cleaning out their own ravaged homes.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has sought to speed the cleanup by suspending safety rules that normally limit how many hours or days in a row a truck driver can work without time off. Speed is seen as key by many people working on the recovery.
Contaminants a fear
On New York Citys heavily flooded Rockaway Peninsula, home to 115,000 people, private contractors have been in a race against mold.
Every last one of these houses needs to have (this) done, said Stephen Wagner, owner of Specialized Cleaning and Flood Restoration of Rochester, N.Y., as he ripped out the inside of a flooded Rockaway building.
Living in a home with mold can cause health problems such as skin and eye irritation, a stuffy nose or shortness of breath, particularly for people with asthma or allergies. Ideally, homes would have been gutted within 48 hours – an impossibility because of the magnitude of the damage.
The floodwaters left behind a nasty mess of contaminants. Residents were urged to clean carefully, especially in areas where the water might have been tainted with sewage.
If there was a box of paint in a garage, or a car that was swamped that had oil in the engine, those contaminants were released, said John Lipscomb, a boat captain with the environmental group Riverkeeper. It is an amazing pollution event that just occurred.
New York Citys deputy mayor of operations, Cas Holloway, said the beach sand that was scooped off the streets has to be checked for contamination from such things as fuel oil.
You cant just put that stuff back on the beach, he said.