ROCKAWAY BEACH — When Hurricane Sandy rushed up the Atlantic Coast and pummeled New York City in October 2012, it decimated homes and property, flooded the subways and caused dozens of deaths.
The storm also destroyed a large swath of the more-than-5-mile wooden boardwalk in Rockaway, tearing apart planks like toothpicks and hurling huge sections into front yards and homes.
CLICK ON THE ARROWS TO FOLLOW THE TRAIL OF THE BOARDWALK WOOD:
The planks from the boardwalk, which once stretched from Beach 9th to Beach 126th streets, didn't disappear — they have been salvaged by private contractors and the Parks Department and have made their way into a variety of locations. The sturdy planks have been spotted at fashion shows, in skateboard ramps and decorating the Shake Shack at JFK Airport.
The wood may also wind up in picture frames, keychains and tables.
With the new boardwalk slated to be made from concrete, it appears to be the end of wooden walkways that were built on the peninsula as early as 1866, according to a local historian. Back then, the walks were built privately by hotel and business owners to make it easier for customers to get to the beach.
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The city-built boardwalk didn’t begin to take shape until the 1920s and was completed in 1931, built out of hundreds of thousands of planks of tropical hardwood, including teak, ipe, Cumaru and greenheart, and originated mostly from rainforests in Brazil and Guyana.
In Sandy's aftermath, Parks Department workers salvaged much of that wood on their own, but some saw that a lot of what was slated to be tossed out could be reused.
Alan Solomon from Sawkill Lumber, based in East Windsor, Connecticut, pushed to salvage wood being tossed by the Parks Department in the weeks following the hurricane.
“The boardwalk was just lifted up...and tossed everywhere, then [the Parks Department] scrambled to kind of get this stuff up off the ground,” he said.
Solomon, who had salvaged Rockaway boardwalk wood from other repair projects dating back to 2009, knew how valuable it was.
“We just kind of witnessed it being jammed into trash containers,” he said.
Beyond its value, he saw a greater significance to deforestation in creating the “superstorm” that later destroyed the boardwalk.
“Part of it is this kind of full-circle awareness of the woods being harvested originally decades ago in a process that was part of the depleting of rainforest, and the prospect of that process being part of the conditions that created the storm,” he said.
“It’s sort of part of the hazard of what caused the problem.”
In the first weeks after the hurricane, the Parks Department, and most locals, were focused on other efforts. Solomon credits an article in the New York Times from Nov. 15, 2012 for convincing the city to let his company salvage wood — one of several that took part in the salvage operations.
“We took a chance at it and were able to salvage it,” he said.
He and his crew ripped out bent nails from the wood and cut them with boltcutters. In some cases they dove through dumpsters and pored over the makeshift dump at Riis Park to salvage the boards.
He estimates his team saved about 50,000-square-feet of wood, which includes the 3-1/2 inch thick planks and the supporting decking.
The Parks Department saved 100,000 square feet of decking and 50,000 linear feet of boardwalk planks, according to a spokesman, and have used it to create seating at Beach 86th Street and plan to use it for other projects in the future.
Solomon says he knows some people may question why “these guys have this wood in Connecticut.”
“But I think we tried to do the right thing by it and we're still there and we're still working trying to make some use of the material,” he said.
Solomon is working with YANA, a local nonprofit that offers social services, to create a woodshop program that will turn some of Sawkill's wood into items including picture frames, keychains and table tops.
The group will get around a box truck’s worth of the wood and eventually sell the items for their group, Solomon said.
The destruction ended a long-standing debate between fans of concrete and wooden boardwalks, which had been in place both in Rockaway and Coney Island.
“I guess this settles the issue of wooden boardwalks versus concrete boardwalks,” then Mayor Michael Bloomberg told The Wave during a meeting in November 2012, weeks after the hurricane.
“There will be no more wooden boardwalks in Rockaway or anywhere else.”
Even the portions of the boardwalk not damaged by the storm are being ripped up and replaced with a concrete boardwalk that will include protective walls to help mitigate the damage from future storms.
Construction on the new boardwalk began last spring and is scheduled to be completed by Memorial Day 2017.