By Wayne Parry
MANTOLOKING, N.J. -- On the surface, things look calm and placid. Just beneath the waterline, however, it's a different story. Cars and sunken boats. Patio furniture. Pieces of docks. Entire houses. A grandfather clock, deposited in a marsh a mile from solid land. Hot tubs. Tons of sand. All displaced by Superstorm Sandy.
"We did a cleanup three weeks ago. Then when we went back the other day, you could still see junk coming up in the wash," said Paul Harris, president of the New Jersey Beach Buggy Association, which helps take care of beaches on which the group goes surf fishing. "They go and clean it again, and two days later, you have the same thing again. There's nothing you can do about it; you can't vacuum the ocean."
Coastal areas of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are racing to remove untold tons of debris from waters hardest hit by the Oct. 29 storm before the summer swimming and boating seasons begin -- two of the main reasons people flock there each year and the underpinning of the region's multibillion-dollar tourist industry.
The sunken debris presents an urgent safety issue. Swimmers could cut themselves on submerged junk, step on one of thousands of boardwalk nails ripped loose, or suffer neck or spinal injuries diving into solid objects. Boats could hit debris, pitching their occupants overboard, or in severe cases, sinking.
The cleanup won't be easy, fast or cheap.
"The amount of debris that needs to be removed is mind-boggling," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, ticking off the statistics in his state: 1,400 vessels sunk, broken loose or destroyed during the storm. In just one shore town alone, Mantoloking, 58 buildings were washed into Barnegat Bay, along with eight vehicles, and a staggering amount of sand carried from the ocean beaches into the bay.
"Everything you can imagine is sitting in our waterways," he said.
Barnegat Bay is likely to have some no-go zones in place for at least part of the spring and summer as cleanup work progresses. "Big Al" Wutkowski, a locally famous striped-bass fisherman who volunteers as the Barnegat Bay Guardian for the American Littoral Society environmental group, is worried about what still lurks beneath the waves.