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SUMMER FUN: Sandy will not stop playtime in Rockaways

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Photo gallery

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A surfer heads into the Rockaway Beach waves prior to the official Memorial Day weekend opening. Photo by Steve Mosco
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A woman walks her dog on Rockaway Beach as a construction vehicle makes its way down the beach. Photo by Steve Mosco
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A construction worker hauls lumber in an effort to get Rockaway Beach ready for opening weekend. Photo by Steve Mosco
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Comfort stations spring up on Rockaway Beach amid the fast-paced reconstruction of the famed boardwalk. Photo by Steve Mosco

During the darkest hours of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, one fact remained true in that swirling tide of uncertainty: Summer was sure to return to the Rockaways.

The superstorm that left the beachfront’s boardwalks in ruins did not change the city’s natural course of seasons. Beachgoers would be back, pressing the city to replace and improve all that was lost.

Sandy’s destructive force reduced the iconic 5 1/2-mile-long boardwalk at Rockaway Beach to scraps of wood, snapping the structure like matchsticks and leaving only the concrete pylons behind.

But with a 24-hour-a-day commitment to rebuilding, the city Parks Department said summer visitors will meet new amenities when they reach the beach this season.

“Rockaway Beach will officially open Memorial Day weekend, just as it has every year before the hurricane,” said a Parks Department spokesman, adding that the boardwalk itself will not be completely built in time for Memorial Day weekend. “We are going to have the same complement of lifeguards and we will be open from one end of the beach to the other.”

The original boardwalk stretched from Beach 73rd to Beach 109th streets, and all along that expanse the city is building new boardwalk islands, concrete plazas, comfort stations and ramps leading from parking areas directly to the sandy beach.

Just over a week before the beach’s official opening, workers were seen hauling scraps of wood and pouring cement as the sun beat down and the beach season drew closer.

The entire cost of recovery in the Rockaways, including debris removal, is $140 million, according to the Parks Department.

Residents who call Rockaway Beach home, even during the winter months, believe beachgoers will arrive and pack the shore as if the hurricane never happened.

“I don’t expect to have this much beach to myself by the time July rolls around,” said Audrey Halpern, sunning herself near Beach 97th Street a week before the official start of the season. “We live in a city of concrete and traffic; people want to come here to get away from everything for a day.”

Halpern was not the only one taking advantage of the spacious shoreline. Numerous others walked their dogs, ate lunch, built sandcastles and surfed while dodging tractors and ignoring the bustle of construction crews just a few sand mounds over.

Meanwhile, businesses at the beach are also busy returning to pre-hurricane form. Rockaway Taco, at 95-19 Rockaway Beach Blvd., reopened at the beginning of May with crowds flocking to the small wooden shack almost immediately.

Other businesses that depend on the summer crowds, including Healy’s Bar and Grille, at 108-07 Rockaway Beach Drive, and Bungalow Bar, at 377 Beach 92nd St., are also up and running, ready for the crowds.

But those crowds need a convenient way to travel from the far reaches of the city to enjoy the sun and surf in the Rockaways. Luckily, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said A train service is being restored ahead of schedule, and the critical link from the peninsula to the rest of the city will be restored May 30, officials said.

“Our system in the Rockaways, like life itself in that area, was devastated,” said acting MTA Chairman Fernando Ferrer, updating the restoration’s progress at the South Ferry subway station in Manhattan May 16.

Transportation is the key to returning the Rockaways to the relaxation destination it had become in the years prior to the October superstorm. When Joey Ramone wrote the line “It’s not far, not hard to reach” in The Ramones’ 1977 hit “Rockaway Beach,” the Queens punk legend had no idea just how difficult traveling to the peninsula would get.

But the Rockaways needs visitors to rev the economic engine that is the beach, and getting the A train back is an important step in the return to normalcy, according to one Breezy Point resident.

“People have got to get here,” said Penelope Shalet, who lives near Jacob Riis Park, a popular and crowded beach. “If people don’t come back to the Rockaways, it can hurt the peninsula.”

A spokesman for the Gateway National Recreation Area said Jacob Riis Park will reopen as well on Memorial Day weekend, but Fort Tilden, a popular alternative, will remain closed this summer due to extreme erosion.

The Gateway National Recreation Area, which encompasses Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden, is a federally managed park and not in the city’s jurisdiction.

The furious nature of the city’s Rockaway Beach rebuilding process speaks to the importance of the beach to the economy of the city at large, according to the Parks Department.

“Along with our partners at the [city] Department of Design and Construction, the Parks Department has been working ’round the clock to reopen Rockaway Beach,” said Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski. “We’ll have the beach open, with access points throughout the peninsula and new, concrete boardwalk ‘islands’ surrounding beach hubs where boardwalk was lost.

“And our work will not end with this weekend’s opening — we’re now installing interim shoreline protections and working with the community and [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers on plans for a replacement boardwalk and comprehensive, long-term protection.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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