Island Beach State Park Still Recovering, Nearly Two Months After Sandy
State hopes to reopen sections of the 'crown jewel' of the state park system to very limited access soon
The morning of Oct. 29 was an uneasy one for Ray Bukowski and his staff at Island Beach State Park. All reports indicated a superstorm of catastrophic proportions was headed for the New Jersey coast. So they did what they could do.
They boarded up windows, moved vehicles and equipment into the maintenance building, one of the highest points in the park.
"We did what we could do," he said. "We took every precaution to minimize impact to the buildings. We jammed everything we could into the garages. That really was all we could do. Our goal was to make sure we secured everything and everyone was out of the park."
Park workers even took down the windmill at the A-21 rest area, "so it wouldn't fly away and end up in Barnegat," Bukowski said.
Bukowski finally left the park around 4 p.m. that Monday afternoon, just hours before the height of the storm hit. Two park police officers stayed until several hours later.
He was back the next day, as soon as he could manuever over the Route 37 East Thomas A. Mathis bridge. It wasn't an easy ride. He dodged sand drifts and downed wires.
When Bukowski finally got to the park entrance, all the toll booths were flooded with foot and a half of water.
"They are gutted," Bukowski said. "We pulled all the wallboard out. They will be fine."
He kept going. Sections of Shore Road - which runs the nine-mile length of the park - were choked with sand. Some areas were almost impassable, especially near area A-7.
"For half a mile, there was up to seven feet of sand in the road," Bukowski said. "It just looked like a giant dune. I was driving a Ford F-250. As I was in the middle of it, the sand was up to the windows. It was like driving through a snowdrift. And you don't move sand as easily as you move snow."
The two ocean bathing beach buildings made it through the storm relatively well. The steel garage door on the first beach was warped by the wind and some shingles were lost.
"The buildings are fine," Bukowski said.
But both boardwalks leading to the ocean at the first bathing beach were destroyed and boardwalks at the second bathing beach were damaged. The lifeguard towers at both beaches also took a hit, he said.
The lifeguard tower near the second bathing beach is "completely gone," he said.
The lack of damage to the governor's house on the oceanfront is a "lesson in dune management," Bukowski said.
"The dunes were breached just south of the house and just north of the house," he said. "The house is fine. There's no water in it."
The hit or miss damage scenarios played out in Island Beach as well as the rest of the barrier island up and down the New Jersey shore.
"The ocean breached the island in areas where there were factors that would allow a breach," Bukowski said. "The water found the weakest points. You'd be driving around some areas that had no impact whatsoever. Then you would come to an area that was absolutely swallowed up - catastrophic. It was kind of a snapshot of what happened everywhere on the barrier island."
Amazingly, the park office, the Nature Center and the Interpretive Center farther down Shore Road fared fairly well.
"It just flooded down the parking lot and out to the road," Bukowski said of the park office. The water only came in the southeast corner. It went straight into the men's locker room. We didn't flood in there at all. The roof sustained some damage. There's dropped ceiling tiles, but the structure is fine."
Bukowski and his staff have been working out of the Forked River Marina in Lacey Township since the storm. But that will change next week when they relocate to a trailer in the park until repairs are made to the buildings, he said.
Although the majority of New Jersey's state parks have reopened since the story, that is not the case with Island Beach and Liberty State Park, said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"They are kind of the crown jewels of the park system and they sustained the most damage," Considine said.
State park police have been on 24-hour duty at Island Beach, he said.
"No one has been allowed in without a letter of access," Bukowski said.
Bukowski said one of his primary concerns after Sandy hit was the surrounding community and residents.
His first day back, he called Berkeley Township Public Works and offered the use of two front end loaders. They couldn't be used at the park because the gas pumps are powered by electricity and Island Beach had none.
"We said if you can fuel our vehicles, we will help you," he said. "They said 'Done.' We tried to pitch in and help. The bond with the municipality grew pretty damn well."