Brooklyn Boro

Where the beach grass grows: How Floyd Bennett Field is fighting future storms

October 8, 2019 Scott Enman
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Driving through Floyd Bennett Field, it’s easy to miss the Marian S. Heiskell Nursery. Sitting snugly between an archery range and an NYPD helicopter-training facility, what appears to be an overgrown lot abandoned to the elements is in fact a garden producing New York City’s first line of defense against hurricanes.

Established in 2014 as a post-Superstorm Sandy response to bolster coastal resilience, the 3.25-acre nursery yields roughly a quarter-million culms of beach grass every year. The plant, also known as dune grass or by its scientific name Ammophila, is one of the most resilient and well-adapted species in the world.

“This stuff is so tenacious,” said horticulturalist Michael Butts on a recent tour of the nursery. “I always say the only thing that can kill Ammophila is itself. Dune grass is the number one species for storm surge mitigation, coastal resiliency and dune restoration.”

Since Sandy wreaked havoc across the northeast seven years ago, several ideas — albeit controversial and extremely expensive ones like $118 billion floodgates — have been suggested to protect against storm surge. Beach grass, though not the end-all solution, offers a natural, cost-effective means of combating climate change.

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Butts shows the stems of dune grass.

The native species, which grows from Virginia to Maine, stabilizes dunes by spreading its roots and cushions the coastline from both storm surge and sea-level rise — versus floodgates, which address only storm surge. The plant can withstand the toughest of conditions, including wind, drought and salt spray — and if sand buries it, the grass migrates upward and continues to grow.

Butts, who works for the New York City Parks Department and lives in Park Slope, is the sole manager of the nursery, dedicated to Marian Sulzberger Heiskell, a lifelong conservationist and citizen founder of Gateway National Recreation Area and the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy.

Heiskell, who died in March at the age of 100, was part of the Sulzberger family that publishes The New York Times, and was married to Andrew Heiskell, the former chairman of Time Inc.

The nursery, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is co-operated by the Parks Department and the National Park Service.

The beach grass grown at the garden is planted at numerous sites throughout New York Harbor and the Jamaica Bay region. Roughly 100,000 culms of the plant were cultivated at the nursery and planted on Coney Island Beach for the first time in its history in the spring of 2017 and 2018.

“If you think about Coney Island, it was just kind of leveled, and for its whole 200-plus-year history it’s just been a flat sand beach,” Butts said. “Now there are these little dunes that will hopefully grow in time and help against storm surge.”

Dune grass grown at Floyd Bennett Field is used to protect against coastal storms.

Hurricane season in New York runs from June through October, but the greatest potential for major storms, according to the city’s Emergency Management, is from August through October.

As these storms continue to get stronger, Butts said it’s imperative that the city breaks its obsession with overdevelopment and instead work to preserve its remaining natural habitats, which act as a protective buffer.

He said that the city’s track record with building on marshland — like at John F. Kennedy Airport — has increased New York’s vulnerability to extreme weather events.

“In order to have a full defense against future storms, not only do we need these dune habitats to be our first line of defense, but also all of our marshes,” he said. “We used to think that these wetlands and marshland were wasteland and we would just build on top of them or bulldoze them, but now we realize that those [areas] can mitigate storm surge, absorb that energy and also help with sea level rise impacts.”

In addition to dune grass, the nursery grows several other species of plants.

Floyd Bennett Field, located in the most southeastern corner of Brooklyn, is roughly 1,300 acres and is part of the Jamaica Bay Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area. The complex was New York City’s first municipal airport, the first in the country built with concrete runways and a former naval air station. National Parks Service inherited the land in 1972.

Butts, who hails from Virginia Beach, said he cherishes working in the nursery at Floyd Bennett Field surrounded by nature.

“It’s very peaceful out here,” he says, looking out over the plants swaying in the wind. “I can go from Park Slope, Brooklyn — the concrete jungle — and in just a matter of six miles, it’s like being back home.”

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