By Karen Zautyk
The first time we saw yellow crimescene tape at DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst was a couple of years ago during a junior CSI educational program for some grade-school students. In classrooms at the Meadowlands Environment Center, the youngsters were investigating the mysterious “death” of a taxidermied pheasant.
Last week, the yellow tape was back, marking off sections of the park that had suffered a violent attack.
And this time, the culprit was readily identifiable: Hurricane Sandy.
At DeKorte alone, the storm damage estimate is at least $1 million. Other parks and wildlife preserves administered by the N.J. Meadowlands Commission also suffered from Sandy’s assault. The overall cost has yet to be determined.
Determining the damage to the wildlife is impossible, but NJMC officials believe that the remarkably resilient birds and the mammals managed to weather the storm. The fish, mostly the carp, were not so lucky. NJMC spokesman Brian Aberback explained that the bottom-dwelling carp had been swept up in the tidal surge, and when the waters receded were left stranded on the land. At one site alone, the Kearny railyards off Rt. 7, “hundreds of dead carp were found,” he said. Contributing to their demise: the inflow of salt water into the freshwater habitat.
Aberback acted as our guide on a tour of DeKorte, which is too hazardous to negotiate on one’s own. The William D. McDowell Observatory is still offering programs, and school groups are participating in Environment Center events, but the park at large is off limits. In fact, the NJMC has issued an official warning: “As cleanup from Hurricane Sandy continues, DeKorte Park remains closed for recreational purposes, including, but not limited to, birding, hiking, walking, dog walking, jogging and fishing. For your own safety, please do not attempt to visit the park for these purposes. You will be turned away.”
Portions of the boardwalk Marsh Discovery Trail have collapsed or been washed away, bird blinds are damaged, the 9/11 Memorial Cove is in splinters, here and there can be seen a savaged dock or walkway, and there is a huge chunk missing from the walk that led from the marsh gazebo to the observation pavilion. Add to that dozens of fallen trees – and trees still in danger of toppling or dropping a branch.
As of last week, Aberback noted, more than 400 tons of debris had been removed from DeKorte. And the work continues. As for a park reopening, “We don’t have a timetable now,” Aberback said. “It has to be safe.”
While NJMC crews have been doing the bulk of the cleanup, volunteers have made an invaluable contribution, showing up by the dozens for commission-directed efforts at various sites, including including Mill Creek Marsh in Secaucus and Harrier Meadow in North Arlington.
We witnessed one of the Harrier projects Friday afternoon, where volunteers worked for two hours in the mud and knee-deep fallen phragmites, removing broken branches, old tires, and various detritus and debris that had washed ashore.
Jim Wright and Melissa Nichols of the NJMC Communications Office were in charge of that project. The Bergen County Audubon Society has also been a rock of support.
“We’re doing our best to get back,” Wright said, explaining that the NJMC will work with its insurance carriers and FEMA.
However, he was quick to note that, considering the massive destruction in N.J. – estimated last week by Gov. Christie at $29.4 billion – other storm-recovery efforts in the state will rightly get priority. “We realize we’re not high on the totem pole,” Wright said.
Still, considering the work the NJMC has done over four decades, rescuing what had been a vast wasteland of garbage and pollution and turning it into nothing less than a natural wonderland and home to endangered species, the ravaged refuges should not be permitted to deteriorate, to revert to “the bad old days.” That is our personal editorial comment.
And if you would like to personally contribute to the preserves’ recovery effort, you can find a list of upcoming cleanups and park status reports at www.meadowblog.net and www.njmeadowlands.gov. There, you will also find some nifty photos of “artifacts” found by the volunteers.
Nature, as we have learned, can be viciously destructive. But it can also be amazingly resilient, especially when humankind lends a helping hand.
At the 9/11 Cove in De- Korte, there is a placard with a quote from Robert Ingersoll. Although placed there as a message of comfort after the terror attacks, it is also particularly apt in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy: “In the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.”