Areas on the US east coast are racing to remove untold tons of debris from waters hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy before the summer swimming and boating seasons begin.
The water sports are two of the main reasons people flock to New Jersey, New York and Connecticut each year and the underpinning of the region’s multibillion-dollar tourist industry.
On the surface, things look calm and placid, but just beneath the waterline it is 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 clean-up 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.”
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 clean-up will not be easy, fast or cheap.
“The amount of debris that needs to be removed is mind-boggling,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie said.
In his state 1,400 vessels were sunk, broke 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,” Mr Christie said.
Barnegat Bay is likely to have some no-go zones in place for at least part of the spring and summer as clean-up 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.
“When people start putting their boats back in the water in April, I know they’re going to start hitting stuff,” he said.
“It’s impossible not to hit stuff. It’s also a lot shallower in places now. A lot of the lagoons are filled in with sand. People can’t get their boats in or out.”
Florida-based contractor AshBritt Environmental removed 42 boats from New Jersey waterways in recent weeks. Others were corralled by the state police, or by private salvage companies acting on behalf of owners.
Property owners are not being held financially responsible for debris that washed or blew off their property into waterways unless they hire a private company to retrieve a boat they plan to repair and keep, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The state, which issued contracts last week for the water cleanup work, plans to seek full reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of $60bn in Sandy relief approved by the US Congress.
Much of the work will involve cranes atop barges that pluck the largest debris from the bottom.
Divers could be used for smaller pieces. Once that is done, many waterways will need to be dredged, with the sand placed back on beaches.
The private owners of an amusement pier that collapsed in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, pitching the Jet Star rollercoaster into the Atlantic, are working with insurers to devise a plan to dismantle the ride and fish it out of the ocean.
Seaside Heights also plans to send teams of divers to scour the ocean bottom in popular swimming areas before letting people back into the water, fearing parts of the wooden pier, metal pieces from boardwalk rides and other debris still linger.
Cars from the pier’s amusement rides were found on beaches as far as eight miles away in the days after the storm.
New York and Connecticut face similar problems. “We have everything from floating oil barrels, gasoline tanks, household hazardous waste products, buckets, tyres, bathtubs, you name it,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment on Long Island.
“We’re concerned not only about pollution, but boater safety. Come the spring, this stuff is going to be submerged partially or totally, but the boats are going to have some very serious issues.”
Rob Weltner, president of Operation Splash, said the Freeport, New York, volunteer group had spent the past 20 years collecting 450.000 kilograms of debris, mostly from waterways on the south shore of Long Island.
“Twenty years is out the window,” he said. “Gone, gone. Sandy hit us right at the time when we would normally be putting the finishing touches on our clean-ups.
“Every place I look I go, ’Oh, my God, not again, man’. We just had that place looking beautiful and it’s going to take us another 10 or 15 years to get it back looking decent again.”
Fairfield, Connecticut, needs to remove debris left in marshlands by the storm, including bicycles, picnic tables and garden furniture.
Fairfield also saw significant beach erosion and needs to dredge its harbour and marina because sand was pushed into the waterways.