Submerged superstorm debris threatens tourism

MANTOLOKING, N.J. (AP) — 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. A lot of the lagoons are filled in with sand. People can't get their boats in or out."

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 issue 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.

The private owners of an amusement pier that collapsed in Seaside Heights, N.J., pitching the Jet Star roller coaster into the ocean, are working with insurers to devise a plan to dismantle the ride and get it out of the ocean.

Seaside Heights also plans to send teams of divers to scour the ocean bottom in popular swimming areas before letting people back into the water, fearing parts of the wooden pier, metal pieces from boardwalk rides and other debris still linger in the ocean. Cars from the pier's amusement rides were found on beaches as far as 8 miles away in the days after the storm.

The Polar Bear Plunge, in which swimmers briefly dash into and out of the frigid surf to raise money for charity, was moved this year from Seaside Heights to Long Branch, a beach 24 miles to the north where hidden debris wasn't a concern.

New York and Connecticut face similar problems.

"We have everything from floating oil barrels, gasoline tanks, household hazardous waste products, buckets, tires, bathtubs, you name it," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment on Long Island.

"We're concerned not only about pollution, but boater safety," she said. "Come the spring, this stuff is going to be submerged partially or totally, but the boats are going to have some very serious issues."

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. "Gone, gone. Sandy hit us right at the time when we would normally be putting the finishing touches on our cleanups. Every place I look I go, 'Oh, my God, not again, man. 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."

Among the items found by the group since Sandy are hot tubs, floating docks, damaged boats, barbecue grills, patio furniture, umbrellas, hundreds of trash cans and the grandfather clock.

Crews in Hempstead, N.Y., have removed 379 tons of debris from waterways since Sandy hit. Neighboring Babylon has retrieved 50 tons, including two tool sheds fully intact, with tools still inside, and 24 destroyed boats.

Fairfield, Conn., needs to remove debris left in marshlands by the storm, including bicycles, picnic tables and backyard furniture, said First Selectman Michael Tetreau. The town is waiting to use special equipment from the state to remove the debris without harming the marshes.

Fairfield also saw significant beach erosion and needs to dredge its harbor and marina because sand was pushed into the waterways. Tetreau doubts the work will be done before Memorial Day, and said there may be limits on boat traffic.

In Brick, N.J., the lagoon on which Mayor Stephan Acropolis lives is filled with junk, including the front door and part of a wall from one of three houses that burned during the storm. Also in the lagoon are a kids' picnic table, a 50-gallon plastic barrel holding who-knows-what, and two docks from homes two blocks away.

Acropolis is counting on the state to quickly remove the marine debris to prevent even deeper economic losses from the storm.

"Someone goes out crabbing; they buy gas for the boat, maybe they have to rent the boat in the first place. They buy bait, they buy lunch," Acropolis said. "It's a big economic impact. People live here because they want to be on the water, out on a boat. If we don't get this cleaned up, we're going to have a problem."

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Associated Press writers Frank Eltman in Freeport, N.Y., and John Christoffersen in Fairfield, Conn., contributed to this report.

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Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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