How Hurricane Sandy Uprooted the Dead and the Living at Green-Wood Cemetery



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Fort Greene resident Glenn McQuaid stands next to an enormous tree that fell on the roof of a second mausoleum. The mausoleum, which is inscribed with the name William Smith Brown, has yet to be repaired. Photo: Claire Landsbaum

On the third day after Hurricane Sandy, Art Presson, superintendent of grounds at Green-Wood Cemetery, arrived at the gates to see the land, the grass, and the trees strewn about as though an ill-tempered giant had rearranged them. He started repairs right away, knowing it would be a long time before things were back to normal at Green-Wood. Two years since Hurricane Sandy tore through the East Coast, they still aren’t.

When Sandy hit New York and New Jersey on October 29, 2012, its winds reached nearly 45 miles per hour, and its size made it the largest storm on record since 1988. It was also an unusually deadly storm, causing 72 fatalities in the United States. Surely Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the living, but it also ravaged the dead.

Of all the cemeteries in New York and New Jersey, Green-Wood bore the brunt of Sandy’s fury. Established in 1838, Green-Wood spans 478 acres in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn. It’s a historical landmark and a touchstone when it comes to New York culture—In 1977, architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times, “before there was Central Park and Prospect Park, people came to Green-Wood.”

Green-Wood’s entrance on 25th Street and 5th Avenue is uphill all the way. Climb the wide paved drive and you’ll arrive at an intimidating gate straight out of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” It towers over the entrance and on sunny days it casts long, triangular shadows over all who approach. The drive continues through the gate, winding up to Green-Wood’s famous chapel, which was built in 1911 during the Victorian Gothic era: think domed ceiling, stained glass, and curlicue stonework.

“One of my first impressions was driving up to a 65-foot tulip tree that had come straight down in the middle of the cemetery,” he says. “The root mass was about the size of a city bus.”

Beyond the chapel in every direction are rolling hills cluttered with tombstones and statues. Ancient gnarled trees dot the grounds, towering over monuments and visitors alike. If you stand in the middle of the cemetery, you forget you’re in New York. Traffic noise disappears—the only sound is the swish of leaves as the breeze disturbs them.

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An enormous tree is still upturned behind the mausoleum of William Smith Brown. The tree fell on the roof of the structure, destroying much of its tiling and stone facade. Photo: Claire Landsbaum

After Sandy, Green-Wood was anything but peaceful. “Sandy was devastating,” says Michael Patterson, a security guard. He stands just inside Green-Wood’s front gate, monitoring its comings and goings. His close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and navy uniform convey experience. He thinks back to Sandy, and his mouth forms a grave line.

“We lost thousands of trees,” he says. “Some of them aren’t very strong because animals burrow into them and weaken them. And they’re all very old. It’s been a long, slow recovery process.”

But there’s hope. Patterson goes on to describe the new planting that’s occurring all over the grounds—new life where the old has been snuffed out.

The old, stately trees are one element that first attracted Presson to Green-Wood. His background is in museum exhibition design, but he went on to study horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and the School of Professional Horticulture. During that time he got a call from Jeff Richman, the historian at Green-Wood, with a request to co-design an exhibition about Richman’s new book, “Green-Wood Cemetery: New York’s Buried Treasure.” At the exhibition Presson met Richard Moylan, Green-Wood’s president. Moylan admired Presson’s work and told Presson to call him when his program ended. He did, and was hired.

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The Mausoleum of WB Van Voast, proprietor of the Gothic Saloons in Brooklyn Heights during the mid-1800s, is one of the handful damaged during Hurricane Sandy. A tree fell on the structure from behind, knocking roof tiles to the ground. Photo: Claire Landsbaum

Dedicated as he is to maintaining Green-Wood’s monuments and grounds, Presson rode Sandy out at his home on the shore of Connecticut. He dealt with flooding in his house, but drove to Green-Wood as soon as the roads were safe.

What he saw there astounded him. “One of my first impressions was driving up to a 65-foot tulip tree that had come straight down in the middle of the cemetery,” he says. “The root mass was about the size of a city bus.”

Digging machine operator Frank Bernardini started hauling debris the day after Sandy tore through. Burials had to continue, so he pushed trees aside to clear the way.

Major planting periods occurred after the Civil War, at the beginning of the 20th Century, and at the beginning of the 21st Century. Now, many of those trees are gone for good.

“It took us a couple of months to get the roads open, but it took us more than a year to clean up [completely],” he says. “With my machine I was pushing the trees to the side…[then] we had a tree gang who came and cut them up.”

Hundreds of trees and tree limbs had been blown down. The trees along roadways were especially vulnerable because their root circle was incomplete—roots can’t grow through asphalt. Many of those trees were lost. Green-Wood’s in-house landscaping crew started in on the small stuff: branches and low-hanging limbs. Three months post-Sandy, a professional crew complete with cranes and backhoes came in to deal with the rest of the debris.

Presson estimates that 200 monuments and headstones were damaged. Three mausoleums, two from the late 1850s and one from 1870, needed extensive repairs. Today those three mausoleums, along with 20-odd headstones and monuments, are still in crumbling post-Sandy condition.

Why? Money, mostly. Technically, families are responsible for their individual monuments if something unforeseen happens. Green-Wood operates on an endowment, which means every family that buries someone there pays a deposit for maintenance in perpetuity. The deposit is enough to pay for upkeep, unless a freak storm like Sandy occurs.

“This is not actually our responsibility, but it’s something that we take on out of pride as opposed to obligation,” explained Presson. These buildings are important, and they’re on land that deserves to be maintained. It’s an absurd promise that we make, forever, but we try to honor it the best that we know how.”

Honoring their promise means paying for repairs, which gets tricky. Green-Wood doesn’t qualify for FEMA aid which, as Presson puts it, is meant for the living. Lisa Alpert, who’s the director of development and marketing at Green-Wood and wrote the cemetery’s grant applications, says she was “very frustrated” with FEMA’s process.

“They led us down the garden path for a few months,” she says, “but in the end they weren’t able to fund a cemetery.” After that initial disappointment, Alpert found out about some state funds that would be made available through the New York State’s Office of Historic Preservation. With the help of an assistant, she began the online application—a process she describes as “onerous.” Had the application been printed, it would’ve piled inches high. Alpert submitted it in November of 2013.

This past July, the news came that Green-Wood had been awarded almost $1 million in state funds for repairs. Although the announcement came over the summer, so far Green-Wood doesn’t even have its award letter.

It’s slow going, but Alpert says she sympathizes with state employees on the other end of the process. “After all the difficulties, we’re still grateful that the office advocated for us in getting these funds,” she says.

When it arrives, the money will pay off the clean-up fund, plus make possible repairs on still-damaged monuments and mausoleums. Green-Wood spent almost $100,000 in clean-up, and equal that in tree work immediately after the storm.

It’s the trees, says Presson, that worry him the most. The oldest, an oak, dates back to 1779—before the cemetery was established. Major planting periods occurred after the Civil War, at the beginning of the 20th Century, and at the beginning of the 21st Century. Now, many of those trees are gone for good.

“It’s the trees people are really drawn to and associate with,” says Presson. “These trees are sentinels that quietly observe the comings and goings in the cemetery over centuries.”

It’s been two years since Sandy—two years of arduous recovery for Green-Wood. Now, new trees are being planted. New life will begin, and maybe the dead can again rest in peace.

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