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Sunday, September 21, 2014

South Shore Rising
Restoring the South Shore's Sandy-ravaged wetlands
Scott Brinton/Herald
The South Shore’s wetlands are covered in debris that washed up during Hurricane Sandy. Above, the shoreline in Merrick.

Like no other storm since the “Long Island Express” of 1938, Hurricane Sandy ripped apart Long Island’s South Shore, lifting docks off their moorings and depositing them miles away, tearing hot tubs from backyard decks and dumping them in the canals that line the coast, and sending boats big and small hurtling out to sea.

Littered with debris and contaminated by gasoline and heating oil, the fragile Spartina grass marshlands that line the South Shore were not a pretty sight in the days and weeks after the storm. Four months later, they remain covered with all manner of storm detritus, and cleaning up the mess has been a seven-day-a-week task for the Town of Hempstead’s Department of Conservation and Waterways and Operation SPLASH (Stop Polluting Littering and Save Harbors), a Freeport-based nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2,000 members and 350 active volunteers.

“It’s just a tremendous amount of debris,” said Rob Weltner, SPLASH’s longtime president. “The [storm] surge pushed everything out.”

In the two decades leading up to Hurricane Sandy, SPLASH volunteers cleaned up more than a million pounds of trash in the wetlands, using flat-bottom boats and large nets. Over the six hours that Sandy pummeled Long Island on Oct. 29, the storm deposited more than that amount of debris in the marshes, Weltner said. “Places we had spic-and-span clean are completely destroyed now,” he said.

Caution: debris everywhere

Since Sandy struck, SPLASH volunteers have found anything and everything in the wetlands, from lawn chairs –– lots of them –– to jungle-gym sets. They even found a grandfather clock, with its hands stopped at 8:50 p.m. –– the height of the storm.

“The bays and marshes were looking really good,” Weltner said. “Now it’s like we were never there.”

SPLASH volunteers pick up smaller debris, but when larger items are found –– boats, docks, even sections of houses –– the town Department of Conservation and Waterways is called in to collect it with one of its four barges.

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