Hurricane Sandy Impacts: Staten Island

Seth Wollney, naturalist and program associate at the Staten Island Museum, sent us an email describing the damage Sandy has caused to certain areas in Staten Island, including Wolfe’s Pond Park and Great Kills Park among others.

 

Greetings,

 

Due to the low elevation of Staten Island’s east and south shores, the Island was one of the hardest hit areas of the city during Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29th this year.  While much media attention has been given to our “forgotten borough” in terms of the human impacts, there are also substantial effects to our beach front.  The Lenape name for the island “Aquehonga“ can be translated as “where the sand cliffs end”.  If the Lenape witnessed the island after Sandy that name might not have been given to describe the island.  While there still are cliffs, or bluffs as we commonly refer to these features, at such locations as Mt. Loretto Unique Area or the north-west facing Conference House Park, there were approximately 3.7 kilometers of bluffs or sloped beach front flattened in one way or another by Sandy along the island’s east and south shores.

 

The loss of certain sections of bayside bluffs is going to mean the loss of at least one established bank swallow colony at Great Kills Park and relocation of a colony at Mt. Loretto Unique Area.  Many local and city birders are familiar with the “salt flats” at Great Kills as a waterfowl, shorebird, and gull location, but few realized that there was a healthy colony of bank swallows at the bluffs just west of the flats during the late spring and summer for the last decade. Sandy’s actions have caused these bluffs to erode, extending the sloped beach inland about 45 feet from where the colony (bluffs) used to stand, up to the sidewalk-parking area. Likewise, a smaller but active bank swallow colony located on the bluffs at Mt. Loretto Unique Area was also wiped out, but as these bluffs are still standing there is hope the swallows and a pair of belted kingfishers will return to this location next summer.

 

The entirety of Crooke’s Point, which makes up Great Kills facing the Raritan Bay, was impacted to some degree during Sandy. As of Friday, November 23, 2012, access to the park was limited to just the first parking area, so getting up close to investigate further down Crooke’s Point was blocked, but there were NPS sand redistribution teams at work in the distance.  Aerial photographs released by NPS show that sand has now moved at least 20 feet into the dune, possibly covering some of the seaside goldenrod and bayberry.  What impact this shift will have on migrating monarch and buckeye butterflies and other wildlife such as yellow-rumped warblers remains to be seen.

 

Further down the island’s south shore is Wolfe’s Pond, which suffered a major breach during Hurricane Irene, causing the freshwater pond to be reconnected to Raritan Bay.  As is often the case with a bayside pond, the breach was plugged up by the sand movements caused by Hurricane Sandy this year.  While my only visits to the breach have been during a half tide or low tide, it is completely possible that at high tide the breach is still low enough for some amount of water flow between the pond and the bay.  In the past year Wolfe’s Pond has shifted from a freshwater pond, to a tidal flat and now persists as a shallow salt pond…the pond itself retains enough water to appear roughly one-third to one-half full at low tide.  It will be interesting to see if NYC Parks changes plans to build a berm at this location.

 

Mt. Loretto Unique Area, a DEC property in the Prince’s Bay section of the island, is most famous for its 80+ acres of grassland. It is also known for the 20+ foot tall red cliffs fronting on Raritan Bay, and is home to one of Staten Island’s oldest lighthouses, which stands on a hill at sea’s edge ~70 feet above sea level.  Finally gaining access just before Thanksgiving, I found the bluffs eroded anywhere from 10 feet to up to 40 feet from pre-Sandy positions.  The old bluff road which runs parallel to the shore line along most of the bluffs was breached in four locations by the formation of gulches.  A four-to-seven foot strip of vegetation used to separate the roadway from the bluffs, but now the roadway sits at the edge of the cliffs.  This path is now closed to public access.  As mentioned above, a small colony of bank swallows and a pair of kingfishers have used these bluffs for breeding the past few summers and hopefully they will return and build new cavities next year.

 

While the biggest impact to the birds of the island was the loss of sections of our bluffs, it will be interesting to see how the understory of lowland parks such as Conference House Park are affected by the new layer of phragmite stems and influx of salt.  If the Lenape had witnessed this event maybe the name for Staten Island would not have been “where the sand cliffs end” but instead “where the sand cliffs used to be.”

 

 

Photos courtesy of Seth Wollney

 

 

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