2003-08-22 / Columnists

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken
On The Bayfront By Elisa Hinken

A few weeks ago, we lost a silent hero. United States Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard E. Bennis, who directed the New York Harbor evacuation of 500,000 people after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, died Aug. 3 of melanoma, at a Fredericksburg, Va., hospital. He was 52.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Admiral Bennis was serving as captain of the Port of New York and New Jersey. That morning, he organized a volunteer flotilla of more than 100 boats to move an estimated half-million people out of lower Manhattan. In the following weeks, he increased the Coast Guard’s profile in the harbor.

Admiral Bennis retired from the Coast Guard in 2002 and was named associate undersecretary for maritime and land security in the Transportation Security Administration.

The recent power outage we endured only underscores the importance of our waterways. When the September 11 tragedy occurred, Admiral Bennis’s organizing efforts brought ferries from the New York/New Jersey areas into immediate service. Had it not been for his quick action, there would have been more panic and confusion than what occurred that day.

During the power outage, ferries were once again utilized to bring people to outer boroughs and counties in the New York/New Jersey areas. We are very lucky we live in an area that has the ability to moor ferries at Riis Landing, the former Coast Guard Station at Fort Tilden. It is underutilized and understated in the importance of quick evacuation and movement of our community residents.

I do not personally know if ferry service was used in Rockaway during the power outage (I was stranded in the Hamptons on business), but it would have alleviated some of the fears of visitors who were stranded on our peninsula until power resumed. Buses could have been used to move people en mass from train stations to the pier to ready for transport by ferry. That is, provided the buses were fueled up – gas pumps need electric to function.

Looking forward, I hope local disaster response teams and local officials realize how we will need to be transported to or from the Rockaway Peninsula on a massive scale. At the Bayswater Peaking Facility in Far Rockaway, a massive steel bulkhead was installed to allow fuel barges to dock and offload their materials for use at the power plant currently under construction. I think this site would be another key opportunity for ferries to dock. Again, in an emergency, all possibilities need to be explored. The Far Rockaway/Five Towns border is already busting with daily traffic. Widespread evacuation will not be successful at this point because there are no supportive infrastructures.

When the Arverne By the Sea project is completed as outlined in their proposal, nine to twelve thousand more community residents will be added to these bottlenecked roads. There have been preliminary talks of elevating a portion of Route 878 along Rockaway Blvd. just north of the Nassau County line. This would certainly help to reduce our traffic congestion, but these talks are just that. Funding is not yet in place and this project wouldn’t be completed for ten years if it were approved. It took over thirty years to bring of Route 878 (Nassau Expressway) to fruition! Design problems involving wetlands only compound the difficulty of building additional roads. At the same time, these wetlands serve as a buffer for our homes and properties. As the wetlands disappear, our exposure to the waters increase. Those who don’t have flood insurance for their homes seriously need to address this. Even renters can buy flood insurance.

If you have a chance to view old postcards of the Rockaways, you can appreciate the role ferries played in the community. There were multiple ferry landings in Rockaway. Ferries continued to be used even after cars came along and the railroad was built.

The calm waters of Jamaica Bay are ripe with opportunities for safe ferry passage. If we can only get an affordable ferry rate, ridership on the current, temporary ferry service would increase dramatically.

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