John Cori warned you

Steve Stathis took a few minutes’ break last week from gutting his flooded home to walk to the beach on the Rockaways and take in the destruction. Stathis, who owns Boarders Surf Shop, was at a loss for words to describe the consequences of Hurricane Sandy on the peninsula, where the rushing sea heaved the boardwalk off its pilings and inundated homes and businesses.

Then he saw some fresh graffiti nearby and his mood changed to anger. “John Cori Warned You,” the spray paint declared. “Demand the Sand. Shame on You!!”

“Cori’s been working for years to get sand to the beaches and no one listened,” explained Stathis.

In 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation agreed to study how to shore up the Rockaways’ denuded beaches to protect shorefront neighborhoods from the sea. Those beaches have been slowly eroding, every tide and storm stealing sand back into the ocean and dangerously shortening the distance between the water’s edge and homes along Shore Front Parkway.

A handball court turned canvas for a painful reminder of alarms sounded before the storm. Photo: Maura R. O’Connor

But the study remains incomplete. Congress repeatedly cut off funding, most recently in 2011. Just months before, Hurricane Irene had hit the New York region, destroying parts of the boardwalk and washing away acres of sand.

John Cori is not an engineer. He is a local electrician whose family has called the “Irish Riveria” home for decades. But he resolved, in the wake of a series of tropical storms three years ago, to get Rockaway beaches replenished.

Cori has emerged from the aftermath of superstorm Sandy with the aura of a seer whose dire premonitions were vindicated after October 29. In July, pleading with the city to step in where the federal government had not, Cori warned about “the lack of urgency from the parks department and other city agencies that are allowing our neighborhood to remain in such immediate danger and willing to take such chances with the possible devastation of our boardwalk and surrounding neighborhoods.”

Last week, Cori stood in front of his flooded home on Beach 92nd Street, ruined household belongings, including family photo albums, in a six-foot high pile. “It’s ridiculous that it took this to know we were right,” he said. “This totally should not have happened.”

The Rockaways’ small strips of sand — just a sliver of a couple hundred feet in places — proved incapable of mitigating Sandy’s destructive power. Beaches in the Rockaways are not only slender; they lack the elevation or dunes that can act as a kind of sacrificial buffer between storm surges and shorefront communities.

“Elevation is everything,” explained Gus Kreuzkamp, a coastal engineering expert and owner of Harbor Engineering, based in New England. “Width is most important, provided the backside of the beach is high enough. If it’s lower than the a storm surge, everyone’s screwed.”

What protection Rockaway beaches did have came in the form of jetties and groins—some of stone but many of now-decaying wood, designed to deflect wave energy and catch sediment from being swept into the sea. Yet what engineers call “groin fields” can actually accelerate beach erosion nearby and require consistent replenishment. And they do nothing to prevent a massive storm surge from coming ashore.

“If you lose enough sediment, you need to renourish, otherwise the groin fields can start to do more harm than good,” said Kreuzkamp.

In the 1970s, Congress had authorized action to bulldoze sand onto more than six miles of shore, stretching from Beach 149th to Beach 19th streets. But nourishing the beaches in an effort to keep erosion in check proved costly, and it was clear that more permanent conservation plans — including a strategy to elevate the sand as a protective barrier — were needed.

The results of the Rockaway Beach Reformulation Study, which began in 2004, remain unpublished. Congress repeatedly allowed funding for the study to expire, according to the Army Corps, delaying its progress. In December 2011, its funding expired again, even as the research neared completion.

“We are very close to moving forward on designing alternatives,” said Daniel Falt, a project manager for the New York District Army Corps of Engineers who has worked on the study. According to Falt, it now needs just $1 million to be finished.

“We are at the mercy of Congress and as the Corps of Engineers we’d love to move forward as quickly as possible,” he said. “We just do what we’re told to do. It’s up to other stakeholder groups to get the word out, and obviously Congress.”

John Cori watched Rockaway beaches waste away – then demanded something be done about it. Photo: Maura R. O’Connor

While the study stalled, John Cori began his transformation into an activist and community organizer. A series of savage storms hit the Rockaways in 2009, battering the coast, closing beaches and further shrinking the shorefront. At the time, a surfer ominously predicted to the Daily News: “Another major storm and we’ll have water on Shore Front Parkway. You can’t stop Mother Nature.”

Cori started asking questions of local officials: what was being done to replace the sand lost in the storms? Who was preparing Rockaways for bigger storms? What he discovered was that fixing the erosion problem seemed be nowhere on the city’s agenda. “There was no plan in place to replace sand,” he said. “No one was paying attention to it in the community board, in the city. There was no sense of urgency.”

Cori and his group, Friends of Rockaway Beach, stepped up their campaign with “Walk for the Shore” and “Demand the Sand” events. He lobbied to get local elected officials on board. In op eds, he pointed to gross inequalities he saw in the city’s funding for projects like the High Line on the West Side of Manhattan, which is undergoing a $90 million expansion with at least $10 million given by the Bloomberg administration and the City Council, while Rockaways remained barren.

“It boggles the mind how the city can find boat loads of cash for the High Line, yet we are told time and time again there’s just no money for the Rockaways,” wrote Cori in the Daily News in March.

Shortly after winning the race to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner in September 2011, Rep. Bob Turner — whose Breezy Point house would be destroyed by Sandy — met with the New York District Army Corps of Engineers, Queens Community Board 14, and the city’s Parks Department to discuss funding for the Army Corps study. That same month, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Assemblymember Phil Goldfeder toured the boardwalk and beach in Rockaway to see the erosion caused by Hurricane Irene firsthand.

As a short-term remedy, Goldfeder and Schumer announced a few weeks later that the Army Corps, in partnership with the city Department of Parks and Recreation, had agreed to allocate $4.5 million to dredge the East Rockaway Inlet and place the sand near Beach 30th Street.

“This victory was won by a long fight and I was proud to work with the community and attend rallies and meetings to ‘Demand the Sand,’” said Goldfeder at the time.

But the Army Corps budgeti did not cover the cost of moving sand further west along the peninsula to other beaches that also needed replenishment. Letters from Senator Schumer and Assemblymember Goldfeder led to a $3 million city budget allocation this year for the dispersal of the sand to beaches further west.

In October, the Army Corps’ contractor, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company of Oak Brook, Illinois, began dredging the East Rockaway Inlet. As of this week, after a short delay from the storm, the company will have extracted 250,000 cubic yards of sand. Steve O’Hara, the New York area manager for the dredging company, said that the dredged sand had stayed in one place near Beach 30th Street, without significant loss.

The city’s Parks Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Superstorm Sandy insured that even if the newly dredged sand is moved, it will merely bring the Rockaway beaches back to their precarious pre-storm conditions. The replenishment effort will now be merely a “quick Band-Aid” to what is really needed to protect the Rockaways from future storms, said the Army Corps’ Falt.

“These are the sort of projects that are kind of touch-up projects,” he explained. “They’re not something that would address longer problems. They don’t address the kind of massive storm surge like we just saw.”

This week, Senators Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand outlined a proposal for rebuilding New York’s coastlines, modeled on the Army Corps work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The proposal focuses on seven Army Corps projects whose funding had stalled, including the study of the Rockaways. The senators said they would seek immediate funding for the projects but the proposal included no further details of what solutions would be implemented.

Falt estimated that permanent protections for the Rockaway peninsula are likely to cost “more than $20 million but less than $100 million.”

If the destruction wrought by Sandy has any silver lining, it is that it has brought national attention to the Rockaways. But in light of the inconsistent funding to the study from Congress so far, finding the money for implementing the Army Corps even more expensive solutions is likely to pose massive hurdles.

The storm, said Cori, was a wake-up call. He will surely be watching to see if Congress, especially New York City’s members, heard it. “The study was underfunded even after Irene,” he said. If it doesn’t get finished after Sandy, “they should be fired.”

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