All along the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, where Hurricane Sandy had laid waste, workers and officials are rushing to restore beaches in time for Memorial Day weekend. But while Rockaway Beach and Jacob Riis Park are slated to reopen for swimming on Saturday, one of the peninsula’s most remote – and, lately, most beloved – beaches will remain closed.
It is Fort Tilden, an expanse of sand west of Riis beach set among abandoned World War II-era fortifications, dilapidated barracks, winding paths through thickets of black pines and tall dunes topped with thick tufts of beach grass and seaside goldenrod.
The storm destroyed the dunes and left detritus scattered across the beach, leading the National Park Service, which controls Fort Tilden, to announce in February that it would not reopen this summer at all.
But those who feel a strong connection to Fort Tilden were not giving up. On Sunday, about 20 of them gathered for a volunteer cleanup effort that they hoped might lead to a speedier reopening. Some arrived by bicycle, others on a rented school bus. As a chilly rain misted across the beach they pulled on work gloves and plastic ponchos, then spread out to pick up debris.
The trip was organized by Manjari Doxey, 30, from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who said that she spent little time at the beach while growing up in San Diego but fell in love with Fort Tilden, which she called “sacred,” the first time she visited, about three years ago.
“In New York City, it’s so hard to get close to nature,” she said Sunday morning as she rode the school bus to the beach. “But this beach is a wild, natural space.”
After Ms. Doxey heard that the beach was not expected to open, she said, she contacted park officials and found them amenable to assistance. So she spread the word that she was looking for people to join a series of trips to help clean the beach or move sand in an effort to restore the protective dunes.
Ms. Doxey said she hoped that her efforts might result in at least part of the beach opening at some point this summer. But Daphne Yun, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said Fort Tilden would not open again until 2014 because the dunes must be replaced and pieces of rebar and concrete had to be removed.
“There is some major cleaning that has to happen there,” she said.
On Sunday, the volunteers were greeted by a ranger who cautioned them not to try to move anything that looked dangerous. Below a gray sky, whitecap waves surged against the sand. Some familiar features of the beach remained. Old wooden pilings were still rooted in the sand and jetties of jumbled rock still extended into the Atlantic, like skeletal fingers pointing toward distant shores.
Many of the volunteers, however, found it difficult to orient themselves without the dunes.
“Before, they were like walls of sand that you walked past,” said Jason Maas, 33, an artist from Red Hook, Brooklyn. “Now all of that is gone; it’s a little bit of a shock.”
Mr. Maas and the others began combing the beach and picking up the flotsam that had accumulated, including roof shingles, beer cans, nail-studded beams and pieces of bright blue plastic foam encrusted with barnacles.
Lloyd Hicks found an orange laundry basket and turned it into a trash container. Paige Teamey had a similar idea, using a frayed piece of white fabric to haul a squarish black tub.
A walk along the shoreline showed the extent of the storm damage. Parts of a concrete roadway that had run behind the dunes was shattered into slabs that formed a patchwork path alongside a tangle of bent and uprooted trees.
But the storm also revealed parts of the park’s military past that had previously been obscured. A concrete pillbox that had been screened by trees stood visible. Further along the shore, a tunnel festooned with faded splashes of graffiti ran beneath an eroded hillock.
Down the beach, Ms. Doxey hefted an odd piece of debris, a long bamboo pole topped with a hook. Someone called it a harpoon. Somebody else likened it to Neptune’s trident.
In midafternoon, the volunteers made their last debris run, pushing a wheelbarrow weighed down with beams and boards through the sand and helping to load their cargo into the back of a pickup truck operated by rangers. Several volunteers said they would return to continue the cleanup.
“This place has been totally transformed by the storm,” said one of them, Steven Arthur. “We can’t let it end this way.”