By Jennifer Peltz
The New York Aquarium has cherished its setting on the Coney Island Boardwalk half a century. But the ocean that is the aquarium's lifeblood dealt it a shattering blow last fall.
Superstorm Sandy's surge overran carefully calibrated tanks with oily, debris-filled water, knocked out even backup power to all the exhibits and made it impossible to check on some of them for days. Managers contemplated shipping animals away and wondered whether the institution itself could survive in its spot on Coney Island.
Five months later, more than 80 percent of the collection is intact, and visitors should be able to see walruses, angelfish, otters and others when about half the aquarium reopens late spring. A planned expansion remains on track, now coupled with rebuilding and floodproofing an institution that aims to be an object lesson in enduring on the shore.
"I don't think we could abandon this facility. Not that we didn't think about it — we thought through everything," aquarium Director Jon Forrest Dohlin said this week as he stood amid pipes and cables in a now-empty jellyfish exhibit.
"We want to be here, and we also want to be able to talk to the community about what we did, how we handled this, and how the city of New York can start to look toward the future of living in this coastal environment."
As he walked through the 14-acre grounds, penguins watched like squat sentries from their outdoor habitat. Walruses snoozed as sea lions arced through the air on their trainers' cues, staying in practice for shows to resume in a few months. Angelfish and other tropical species shimmered around a coral reef and hefty pacu, a fruit-eating piranha relative, hovered in an Amazonian display in the one building where exhibit space wasn't flooded.
But the effects of the Oct. 29 storm were still starkly visible elsewhere.
The floor was torn out of a building that houses jellyfish, seahorses, lungfish and other unusual creatures. Many were still there but set to start moving next month to other aquariums while their facility is rebuilt. The open pool in front of it was drained dry; it housed hundreds of freshwater koi that died in the saltwater surge.
Sharks, sea turtles and rays circled serenely in a tank in the aquarium's veterinary hospital. They're healthy but were shuttled there after the storm put an exclamation point on plans to reinvent their exhibit. Nearby, the gutted cafeteria still has "Happy Halloween!" signs on its windows.
There's no firm date yet for this spring's partial reopening. The rest of the exhibits, including the new $120 million shark display, are to open in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the aquarium, is determining how much insurance and government aid may pay toward fixing roughly $65 million in estimated damage.
The aquarium was founded in 1896 in lower Manhattan. It moved in 1957 to Coney Island, a faded seaside playground now striving for rebirth. Drawing more than 750,000 visitors a year, it's "the economic engine for Coney Island," says City Councilman Domenic Recchia Jr., who represents the area.
Aquariums are often built by the water and have proven vulnerable to hurricanes. New Orleans' Audubon Aquarium of the Americas lost thousands of fish when generators failed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It reopened about five months later.
In Galveston, Texas, Hurricane Ike's storm surge in 2008 killed about three-quarters of the fish in Moody Gardens' rainforest exhibit, General Manager Robert Callies said. The exhibit reopened in 2011 after bringing back hundreds of birds, reptiles and mammals sent to other zoos after the storm.
At the New York Aquarium, Sandy's surge coursed through air-intake vents in flood doors under the Coney Island boardwalk, punched through sand into the parking lot and rushed in from the parking lot after a creek overflowed blocks away.
As the water rose three feet high in Dohlin's ground-floor office, he watched it pour down a stairwell into a basement that housed exhibits and the equipment that keeps them alive.
"'We lost the aquarium,'" he thought.
Basements were under up to 15 feet of water. Generators were either damaged or useless because equipment needed to distribute their power was fried. The pump house that draws from the ocean to refresh the 1.5 million-gallon exhibits was out of commission, as were systems that treat the seawater, tailor it to different environments and maintain the oxygen levels, temperatures and water chemistry the aquarium's 12,000 animals need.
None had been evacuated. That would have been very difficult to arrange in the few days the aquarium had to prepare, Dohlin said.
Scrambling to save the collection, 18 staffers used hospital-style canisters to get crucial oxygen into the water, rebuilt filters and pumps on the fly and called in equipment from the Wildlife Conservation Society's four zoos. They mixed artificial seawater in garbage cans and warmed rooms with space heaters to keep water temperatures up, animal operations director David DeNardo said.
At the same time, managers weighed how much longer they had to get systems going before having to ship animals away, an unwelcome prospect for already stressed creatures. On Nov. 1, the wildlife society announced that a decision would probably have to be made in 24 hours. But key systems were at least partially running in all the exhibits two days later, and the animals stayed.
The koi and some other fish were dead. But many other fish and all the mammals were fine — including Mitik, an orphaned walrus calf that arrived only weeks before. He seemed to enjoy splashing in a couple of feet of surge water, Dohlin said.
A 3-foot-long American eel disappeared from its tank but turned up, unharmed, in a staff shower stall. Seahorses held on to life despite the cold, dirty surge water that flowed into their tropical tanks.
Now, plans call for raising the new shark building several feet higher to meet new flood-zone predictions, moving air intake vents from the flood doors to the roof, moving electrical panels out of basements and installing full-height storm doors on some glass doors that were only partly protected.
It's an unexpected chance, Dohlin says, to improve both the aquarium's exhibits and endurance at once.
"Not to let any crisis go to waste," he said. "That's the real opportunity here."