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A little microcosm of damage anywhere

Ray Bukowski

Ray Bukowski is Manager of Island Beach State Park. Having been new to the position at the time of Hurricane Sandy, Bukowski was responsible for the decisions made in regards to Hurricane Sandy preparation and recovery efforts. More than two years after Hurricane Sandy, Bukowski discloses things he may have done differently and also stresses the importance of sand dunes and dune maintenance.

 

I was more affected in the professional sense because I’m the manager of Island Beach State Park, which did suffer significant damage but also as part of a community. On the Barrier Island, we as a whole sustained major damage.

What was your job title at the time of Hurricane Sandy? What types of responsibilities did your position entail?

Park manager and I had been at [Island Beach State Park] for 10 months.

I’m responsible for management oversight of maintenance and development. If we do capital development within the park, I’m ultimately gonna be responsible for the planning of that… I don’t handle the contracts necessarily but I do participate in the planning and execution of any development. But on a daily basis I am responsible for maintenance, lifeguard operations, revenue management, budgeting, natural education programs, natural lands management, managing equitable public access for sometimes divergent views and different perspectives of different user views within the park and managing upwards of 130 people seasonally who are employed here.

I understand that you are involved in the decision-making processes. What significant decisions did you make regarding Hurricane Sandy?

To close access to the park prior to the storm. I mean that’s the ultimate decision. There were plenty of decisions that we made to try to prepare the best that we could. It’s a little difficult out here. The decision to prepare, the decisions to…I don’t want to use the word evacuate because we followed orders of the office of Emergency Management in terms of evacuations. But it was also to make sure that we had staff here, to assist to make sure that there were not people still here… which believe it or not there were and myself and one police officer were the last two people, physically within the park. We made sure that there was no one here before we closed up. Then a police officer sat until things got really bad.

[After Hurricane Sandy,] first and foremost, was to assess damages and to participate with DEP communications office and senior management on sharing of information and the methods in which the information was shared to the public. That was the first decision.

The second decision was how to and when to bring staff back [and] where to deploy them to begin the process of trying to start recovery right away. But the island was inaccessible in general. A lot of people are well aware of it…residents couldn’t get to their houses. So just the process of getting staff here and not just to get them here but when to get them here, how to get them here, and then what to do once we were here…because you know we were without power for so long.

What were the first steps? It was really just a lot of logistics initially and a lot of messaging and trying to get the messaging on damages from the park and how that fit into the grand scheme of damage reporting for the state as a whole. It’s important for people to know but we had to assess whether it was more important to talk about damages to a natural area or to infrastructure, versus talk about damages in the developed area where peoples’ homes and businesses and livelihoods were. So, it was very difficult.

Aside from closing access to the park, how did you prepare Island Beach State Park for Hurricane Sandy? 

There are basic things that we do. Fortunately at that time of the year it’s not removing lifeguard stands or lifeguard boxes and things like that, that could become projectile. Fortunately, it was far enough after the season or long enough after the season that those things were already put away and stored. So it was really just a matter of what you could theoretically or presumably do at a home or a residence and taking any precautions [that] you can in terms of windows and things like that. Mainly, it was really to just make sure that the people were out of here safely.

Do you feel that the previous storms influenced how you prepared for Hurricane Sandy or the decisions that you made pertaining to Sandy?

I actually worked in Trenton in the Commissioner’s Office during [Hurricane] Irene and I was involved in a lot of the problems that occurred with flooding inland, which ironically had a lot to do with parks and park damage. I wasn’t directly involved with it but I was involved with a lot of communication of issues.

When I got to Island Beach there was still a little bit of damage we were recovering from Irene and we were in the process of trying to get some funding freed up from FEMA and other grant applications to resolve some damages or to add to resilience in the future. So, nothing really direct in terms of this. This was like a nice, big, first dive into management, emergency management of a disaster.

I didn’t really make the decisions to prepare for previous storms. This was my first major go-round. However, there were a few decisions that were made that I had taken in information from staff, who had experienced past storms. I would take their input on things that they had done in the past under previous management and actually did change some of the methodology. For instance, the vehicles that are assigned to this park for maintenance were relocated to the mainland at Double Trouble State Park in previous storms. Honestly, I was afraid that if we moved them over there before the storm that in the wake of the storm…which you know obviously the damage turned out to be much more significant here than anyone had anticipated…I was afraid we wouldn’t get them back on to the island. I don’t know how I came to that conclusion, but I’m glad we didn’t move them because it made the decision informed. The elevation of where our garages are is actually very high and in a very protected area from natural dunes. So I knew, if that garage was gone, the island was gone; anecdotally. So I’m glad we didn’t move them because we had the vehicles to operate once we were here and getting on [the island] was very, very difficult.

Can you tell me about the damage that Hurricane Sandy did to Island Beach State Park as a whole?

[Island Beach State Park] could be looked at as a little microcosm of damage anywhere. Areas where we had very viral healthy dune, protected the infrastructure very

Above is the main road in the area of the fishermen's walkway, that is a piece of it in the left side. The sand was almost 7 feet deep
Above is the main road in the area of the fishermen’s walkway, that is a piece of it in the left side. The sand was almost 7 feet deep

effectively. This stretch of the beach is very fortunate because the natural dune system is so vast that generally speaking, the protections were very good. There were just areas where we did experience over wash…which is the technical term about the dunes being compromised by the ocean, where they’re literally doing their job; becoming a sacrificial lamb to absorb energy from the ocean.

Where we had trails, that would end up kind of funneling some water and because of that we did have areas that we did experience over wash that was significant enough. We had actually 3 areas where we could consider it a breach, because the water actually met the bay. In those areas we did sustain some damage, like our gatehouse. The dune had come through an area called Two Bit Road and flooded the gatehouse with over 3 feet of water and pretty much demolished the building. We had to rehab the entire facility.

We have a marina on the bay side, which like so many places… I mean it wasn’t from ocean, it wasn’t from dune over wash, it was from swelling of floodwaters in Barnegat Bay that flooded the property. We had 2 buildings that were flooded significantly that required demolition, a third building that unfortunately floated away, floated off its foundation and broke apart and that was demolished. So all buildings are gone from that facility at this point and they have not been restored.

The building that we’re sitting in right now, at the administrative office at the park, fortunately we’re sitting behind a very large dune; this building suffered no significant damage. Really ironically, right outside [of] this window, right here to the south, there’s an access path that we use for emergency vehicles and lifeguard operations right up and over the dune and water did come down and it flowed right down the parking lot, into the road and did not damage this building. At the height of the storm, we just saw the trail. It actually came in the back door of this building, [the] water, and it fortunately funneled right into the drain in the male lifeguard locker room shower. It was just kind of amazing. There was some sand on a tiled room floor and sand in our traps but the water did not get into this building at all. We only lost shingles and we had some exterior damage from wind [but] that occurred in numerous locations.

The vast majority of our damage was to all of our boardwalks and trails. Our pavilions where the swimming areas were generally unaffected other than wind damage, which required re-roofing and things like that. I wouldn’t consider that significant in the grand scheme of things, but the boardwalks were all destroyed and became projectile in[to] the ocean at some point. We had a lot of damage to the natural infrastructure, the dune systems, that is okay…that’s the way it’s supposed to work. So we had to put a lot of effort into restoring that.

[In reference to the jetty,] the trajectory of the wind and the oncoming waves came sort of northeast to southwest. To explain it the best, with the jetty sort of running east-west with a little bit of south face to it, it came across the pocket of the jetty at some point and the ocean and wave action actually went up and over the jetty into Barnegat Inlet. As the water went over the backside of the rocks, it created some undermining which destabilized the middle of the jetty. People thought the water had pushed the stone off the top and into the jetty and that’s not the case. It had undermined the base stones by eroding out the sand very quickly so the base stones sort of rolled and sloughed into the inlet and then the top fell down. That structure is actually owned by the federal government and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers and the state has had an agreement for a long time to provide access for park visitors to the jetty. Fortunately the corps stepped up very quickly and we coordinated a lot of recovery effort. All last year it was very public that we did not allow any access to the jetty while the corps came in and rebuilt the jetty. It is reconstructed now and they didn’t just repair, they actually reconstructed to today’s engineering standards so it has vastly improved from what it was for future resilience.

We also lost miles and miles of fence. I mean [if] you compare fencing loss to people’s homes and businesses; it’s tough to compare those things. Really when we have to assess all of our damages, those damages occurred but when you look at it in a really relative sense, how that compares to what happened in really relative areas, the park was fortunate but infrastructure did take a hit.

How long did it take to restore the island back to its original state? When was the area again accessible to the public?

I would say that right now the island is still not back to its ‘normal’ state. We still are having some effects. I mean we still struggle a little bit.

Unfortunately but fortunately in a lot of ways, you know everything’s a trade off. Most of our utilities are underground here. I’m kind of referring right now to our telephone lines — they’re sitting in a very salty, sandy environment. Now 2 years later, we’re having a lot of problems with communication here because the salt and the sand that they were exposed to, corrosion has taken 2 years to cause a lot of problems. We’re kind of always chasing our tail from damage, which again is occurring in so many other developed areas of the state where they’re having much worse problems than poor phone lines.

I mean there is electrical damage as a result, or gas line damage as a result. Running risk of more disasters… put it that way. So it’s all-relative, and we’re still recovering dunes, not just to restore them so that they’re there again, so that the coast is resilient again. The health of the dune system here had nothing really to do with the park operation, it has to do with managing that natural resource to protect the mainland side of Barnegat Bay and the bay itself. The healthier the dune, the less damage we’re gonna have in the next storm. So, it, it’s been an ongoing effort.

We actually have a volunteer event here tomorrow [March 21, 2015], where 200 people are coming to plant 15,000 dune grass plugs. And we would do that every year, this is not storm response… this is just dune management. We have a beach and dune maintenance permit from our own department, it’s a Coastal Area Facility Review Act permit for beach and dune maintenance and we actively participate in buying fencing, dune fencing and grass — we’re very strategic about it. We have a strategic plan every year for where were gonna plant, where were gonna enhance the dune system. So, that will always be going on and we’ve got the marina to redevelop.

So, now back to operations… We were closed right after the storm. One of the first things I needed to do for our senior management/state government was to put together a projected schedule to when we could partially open and fully open to the public. Response was phenomenal, not just staff, volunteers, the local community, state government at the highest levels providing support. We rallied very quickly and we were able to reopen partially. We didn’t have power for almost 3 months. So there was like no questions, you know?

Staff [that] work[ed] out of this building actually went to Forked River Marina, which we manage, and they worked out of that office to do all of our paperwork. I came and basically worked out of a truck and our maintenance crew operated where we just hooked the generator up to our panels to have some power to pump fuel so that we could just keep on working. And we had many contractors who were hired through our Office of Resource Development to provide recovery efforts. We actually opened partially by early spring, where we allowed partial access and we made a commitment that we would be fully operational with some limited amenities by the middle of June and we actually made it by Memorial Day. The park was fully operational the following summer. We made it ahead of schedule.

One of the major access points which is referred to as the Fisherman’s Walkway, we literally just opened it 2 months ago. All of last summer and the summer before, it operated as just a sand trail as opposed to a long boardwalk to the beach. So it’s always a continuing effort, but everything was prioritized. We had to make sure that our infrastructure was operable first so that people could safely access and then the amenity type things, such as letting people walk on the boardwalk as opposed to the sand…that had to wait because it wasn’t just as important as other things. And that is complete now so we’re glad. Efforts continue.

Can you tell me about your experiences with the restoration and rebuilding process and some of the challenges you faced?

The response from our user groups and the community in general was unbelievably supportive and helpful.

We at the park here recognize that we were part of a community.

So like the first thing our guys did when we got here is…we actually have antiquated equipment here, very. Our loaders, which we use to move sand, were mothballed by the Department of Transportation, decades ago and we took them and we’re still running them. One’s a 1969 the other is a 1972. But our staff, which my [senior] management supported…it was really my direction catering to the desires of our staff, they took the loaders into town, just outside the park. They helped clean streets [and] get people’s furniture and belongings off the street, and get sand off the street.

 This is the second swimming pavilion parking lot, the sand is about a couple feet deep.  The walkway in the distance was at the previous elevation
This is the second swimming pavilion parking lot, the sand is about a couple feet deep. The walkway in the distance was at the previous elevation

There were a few people who argued against that and I understand their point, they wanted to clean the park because they work here, they support “here.” But our overriding feeling was that we could not open the park without the community being opened and we needed to be part of that process. So, we did what we could which was very, very minor. And in turn, Berkeley Township and Seaside Park supported us and they helped us because we couldn’t get fuel. They fueled our vehicles, we helped them clean and once it was accessible and we could get to the park, then we turned our attention here.

Then the volunteers came including Berkeley Township people, to help us when we needed to do things. So, the local cooperation was outstanding. The response from our staff was outstanding… I mean that staff I’m talking also about the park service, the DEP in general, our office of resource development. The response was very quick and there was not a lot of deliberation about doing what we had to do to get it done, and we did that, which is how we got open ahead of schedule.

Where it was a challenge was bluntly… I spent as much time with people recording information and doing things for federal agencies, to hopefully have reimbursed money or our own insurance companies. We exhausted a lot of resources on that without apparent return. There may be return at some point but there was no apparent return at that time.

So for me to keep staff focused on, well we have to do this, we have to fill out paperwork, we have to do project worksheets. It was a voluminous amount of project worksheets and that was a bit of a challenge. And you know there was a huge sacrifice by the department because there were projects planned for development, the capitol development to enhance visitor services all over the state that got scrapped because that money had to be reallocated toward the recovery of not just Island Beach but also Liberty State Park and Leonardo State Marina and parks down south like Parvin or Fort Mott that sustained major damage. So understandably, those monies were all redirected. So that, without seeing it, now there’s other projects that would’ve been very good use to the public that have not occurred at this time and you know, hopefully they’ll get back on the docket… you know?

I would say that the biggest challenge was coordinating all [of] those efforts and it’s not a complaint about the process from FEMA, it was just that trying to get everyone coordinated to understand that some people need to spend an immense amount of time to manage these processes so that potentially, our department and the state would receive federal monies and the back end or our insurance coverage… I went around with insurance adjustors a lot. So it was keeping everybody focused on ‘this needs to be important’ even though you’d rather be banging a nail or removing debris or moving sand… keeping everyone focused that we couldn’t finish it in a day and you have to take care of the little pieces that was, was a big management struggle.

Maybe I would not have focused so much on all of the paperwork that I had to do and would have put you know my own physical efforts a little bit heavier into those other things. But [I don’t think I would have done anything differently], no not really because I think that we did what we could to fit into the grand scheme of the entire region to recover, pretty well. A little bit of the communication I may have changed, there… we ran into some political issues in the aftermath because it was a very emotionally charged extended period of time.

There is a misconception that ended up in the public that there was a perceived lack of dune here… and I don’t take that personally and the park service doesn’t take that personally but nothing could be further from the truth. Like I said there were people who suffered great loss and they, they’re looking to recoup however they can or honestly human nature… lay a little bit of blame somewhere else. And a lot of effort and a lot of energy was expended toward arguing about whether or not there should be engineered dunes throughout an 8-mile stretch of beach which is probably the most vast dune system… one of the most vast dune systems on the East Coast, mid-Atlantic at least.

I may have changed a little bit of the messaging right off the bat so that the perceived lack of dunes would have been better understood. That it was just [the result of] some compromise in some areas because it’s a part of the natural process but that’s really about it. I may have had a little bit more free-flowing information the next time, [the] next go-around because you tend to get less pushback if you’re more open with people than not. Lack of information tends to make people think the worst.

Are there any stories associated with the storm and rebuilding that you would like to share that I didn’t cover?

To me, I think one of the biggest highlights is just the amount of community rallying that occurred, which is more than nice, it’s remarkable. Similar to 9/11 response where all of a sudden people united a little bit. People united a little bit in the wake of this tragedy and that was great and its great, up and down the whole coast… not in just New Jersey but up and down the whole coast in the wake of the hurricane. But the understanding that occurred here was incredible because I had people who had very … I don’t want to say antagonistic, but you know different views on resource management here, who worked seamlessly together from a volunteer perspective. You know people advocated for beach nesting bird habitat and that as a inherent conflict with some access for fishing, I had people who represented both of those interests all working together to do dune restoration, every weekend… and I mean hundreds of people.

The amount of trash that was collected would probably blow minds. Mountains of trash that looked like transfer stations and it wasn’t from demo… There were no buildings leveled here except for the one at the marina. So all of that was picked up, literally one piece at a time… not by machines, not by loaders, by people putting it into pick up trucks. All [of] the pieces and material brought by hand by truck, many of them volunteers and dropping it into a parking lot and making it look like a mountain of refuse at a landfill is mind boggling. I mean you know in hindsight it was amazing. It was really, really wild to see that occur.

So it’s kind of bittersweet, you see all [of] these people do all this and you see the fruits of the effort… it’s a shame that all of that stuff came from someone’s house somewhere else. I mean we had things that were washing up all the time from the boardwalks and not just the local boardwalks, boardwalks a long ways away. We identified a lot of things and we actually put them out and returned a lot of stuff to the owners, you know not that it was ever useable. [It was] kind of neat.

Do you feel that there are any lessons for the future that can be learned from Hurricane Sandy?

I believe in it personally and my background professionally. When I came here is when I started with the park service, before that I worked in the Commissioner’s Office and prior to that I had worked in the enforcement program over at DEP. I spent a long time working in coastal resources and so I’m a huge proponent of dune management. Dune management is critical to sustain the coast and sustainable development.

Different methods of dune construction and management are necessary in different geographic locations and also with consideration to what the development scenario is in that given area. You can’t manage a dune system in Island Beach State Park or Holgate or the north end of Brigantine as you would in obviously Mantoloking; it’s [a] different scenario. My feeling is that there is viable dune management in all [of] those areas and you have to use [a] little bit different methodology and some times it has to be a little bit more of an artificial sense… as people may see it, by bringing in sand and doing an engineered dune, you have to.

Once an engineered dune is there, you do have to manage it carefully and [provide] education for people to understand and this we suffer all the time here… people don’t understand that one footprint on a dune will absolutely compromise that dune. It’s that critical and it’s that sensitive that if you break a rhizome from dune grass that is running from one plant to another plant, you break that plant so it will not continue to grow chutes and it will destabilize that area. And that one footprint will slough and allow… it’ll just start from the bottom and go up to top and cascade sand down and you compromise the whole system.

We have people who show up for volunteer events who say “Oh, while we’re here lets take a picture on the dune!” and they walk up the dune. You know they’re doing it very innocently and they don’t mean any harm but they don’t realize that yes, that one occurrence is that damaging.

So, that’s kind of the lesson I think that is learned is that you have to adapt and you have to have a viable dune management program up and down the coast. There is a method regardless of what the setting is and every scenario has to be treated independently but the goal ultimately is… sacrifices have to be made. I don’t have an oceanfront home but I would take having my home over having a good view, any day…me personally.


Interviewed by Caileen Fitzpatrick
Assisted by Stephanie Kroeger
Island Beach State Park, March 20, 2015

Photographs by Ray Bukowski