Midshipmen pitch in to clean up local park

Stephen McGuire, left, and Jamie Collins carry cut

Stephen McGuire, left, and Jamie Collins carry cut wood as Plebe Midshipmen from the United States Merchant Marine Academy help clean up Kings Point Park after Sandy damaged many trees in the park in Kings Point. (Dec. 8, 2012) (Credit: Steve Pfost)

Armed with wheelbarrows and gloves, the midshipmen of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy began a task its neighbors alone could not.

At Kings Point Park, rocked by superstorm Sandy, felled trees that were more than 100 feet tall and that many years old made trails no longer walkable. Streams were choked by broken branches.

The cleanup was too big for the Great Neck Park District to handle by itself. Of the district's 50 full-time workers, just three are stationed at Kings Point.

But the potential for more destruction caught the attention of area residents and parks officials.

If the streams remained blocked, that could cause more flooding, and the tree debris could fuel a fire "of epic proportions," said park supervisor Will McGirr.

Mary Cunningham, social director at the academy, said the midshipmen have volunteered in the 175-acre park -- a quarter mile from their dorms -- many times before. But those efforts pale compared with what's needed now.

"This is of a whole different scale," she said.

Saturday, nearly 200 midshipmen toiling in shifts cleared a mountain of brush and logs from a portion of the heavily wooded park.

Park and academy officials say the cleanup underscores a long-held relationship.

"The parks department loves them because they're nice, young energy that comes to the parks and run on the trails," Cunningham said. "They live here."

Beebe Gannon, 23, of Valencia, Calif., in his final year at the academy, said he was surprised while on a run after the storm to see how hard the park was hit. "I thought the North Shore was more protected during Sandy," he said.

In June 2010, another park in the Great Neck area, Village Green, was decimated after a microburst -- a series of violent thunderstorms -- "sliced all the trees down," recalled Ruth Tamarin, a park commissioner.

But Sandy was different.

Bob Lincoln, another commissioner, said he, too, assumed the North Shore, with its steeper elevations, would be less vulnerable to storm surges. But the harsh wind came, he said, and it "just took its toll."

One of the midshipmen volunteers, Charlie Helms, 18, of North Brunswick, N.J., made more than a dozen trips around the perimeter of Kings Point Park Saturday morning, hauling brush in a wheelbarrow.

Some of the logs he carted off, slung over his shoulder, weighed 100 pounds.

Feeling sore, Helms was looking forward to a promise from the parks crew: sandwiches.

"Hopefully, some nice food will make me feel a little better," he said.

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