Building Better Boardwalks: Asbury’s Modern Boards Withstand The Storm

Here’s how Asbury Park did it—largely sparing its popular promenade from devastating damage.

Asbury Park Boardwalk
The Seaside Heights boardwalk required demolition after the storm. In Asbury Park, the newer promenade was better equipped to withstand Sandy’s onslaught.
Photo by Joseph P. Graziano.

Nothing says Jersey Shore like its boardwalks. Atlantic City built the first one in 1870, and now virtually every seaside town has one. Or did, until October 29, when Hurricane Sandy swept many of them away.

Asbury Park’s wooden promenade fared better than most. Even though one 30-by-6-foot chunk was carried 2½ blocks inland and some sections lost boards, 70 percent of the town’s mile-long wood promenade survived largely unscathed.

Was Asbury Park lucky or smart? Actually, a bit of both.

Being on the mainland spared the town from the waters rising on all sides that engulfed barrier-island towns, notably Mantoloking and Seaside Heights. Another bit of luck, notes Tom Gilmour, director of the city’s Department of Commerce and Economic Development, is that Asbury Park has a natural “catching beach,” meaning that while many towns lose sand in a storm, Asbury Park actually gains it—as happened with Hurricane Irene in 2011 and again with Sandy. The accumulated extra sand, Gilmour says, helps deaden the impact of storm-surge waves.

But the Asbury Park boardwalk is also newer than most. When it was rebuilt in 2002 (at a cost of nearly $8 million), the city set out to overbuild the structure to withstand an epic storm, says Joe Cunha, who became city engineer last March. “Somebody was thinking ahead. There are bolts through the beams and bolts through the stringers,” he says, referring to the timbers on which the floor boards rest.

Equally important were changes made under the boards. “We built an entirely new pile foundation and used heavy steel anchors to connect the piles to the beams,” says structural engineer Sam Kleinberg of CME Associates, the Parlin engineering firm that designed the boardwalk. In most older boardwalks, Kleinberg explains, the planks are toe-nailed—the nails are driven at a slant—to the beams below. In the Asbury Park rebuild, “we used lots of 3½-inch stainless steel screws, heavy gauge, to anchor the decking to the underlying framing, which is anchored by metal clips to the substructure.”

Another key difference is that the boardwalk is fronted on the ocean side by a bulkhead—a sheer wall of pilings driven 10 feet into the sand, their tops touching the front edge of the walking surface. Without such a barrier—which many Shore towns lack—boardwalks are defenseless.

“When those massive walls of water come through, completely unabated, they go underneath the boardwalk and just lift it all up,” says Cunha, comparing the effect to a powerful wind filling a sail. Cunha gives the bulkhead “huge” credit for sparing the boardwalk worse damage. Sandy did warp and tear a number of surface planks, but the structure underneath stood fast.

Thanks to foresight aimed at a different kind of threat, the northern end of the boardwalk came through looking virtually untouched. To prepare for the Bamboozle rock festival last August, Cunha had the cavity beneath the boardwalk packed with a material he calls soil cement. “No way were we going to let 40,000 people bounce up and down on our boardwalk,” he says.

For Gilmour, the reengineered, reinforced boardwalk protected much more than itself. “It acted as a barrier,” he says. “It took the energy out of the waves and saved the city.”

Click on the links below to read more Hurricane Sandy recovery stories:

Sea Change: Post-Sandy Rebuilding
The post-Sandy rebuilding is about to begin. How will the lessons learned change the face of our Shore?

How Much Will Safer Shore Homes Cost?
How we rebuild Shore homes and businesses may be as critical as where.

The Hudson Challenge: Are Critical Infrastructure Upgrades Overdue?
On Jersey’s Gold Coast, aging infrastructure can no longer be ignored.

Comfort in Numbers: Life After Sandy
Her Bay Head home battered by Sandy, our home & garden editor learns to roll with the punches.

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