Life took a dramatic turn for Maxinne Leighton when she visited her childhood home of Coney Island, New York, a few days after Hurricane Sandy had decimated the seaside community in late October 2012.
“What happened in my community was devastating,” Leighton says. “It was utterly shocking.”
Many of the places she knew growing up were now unrecognizable. “Cars were floating in the parking lots, the beaches and the streets were littered with furniture,” she says. “Homes had just completely washed away. There were piles of sand as high as the Cyclone roller coaster.”
She was also shocked by the inconsistency of the damage. One block would be destroyed, while the next was spared serious damage.
“It was incomprehensible to see that so much of the beach had eroded in such a short time,” Leighton recalls. “Even the smell of mildew from water damage knocked you off your feet.”
Leighton’s visit to her home was as part of a Parsons Brinckerhoff team overseeing recovery and mitigation efforts in regions affected by Hurricane Sandy. As Northeast Region Business Development Manager, she is responsible for business development and marketing efforts at 10 Parsons Brinckerhoff offices from Washington, D.C. to New England.
After Superstorm Sandy, she also took on the responsibility of writer and researcher for The Sandy DART, the semi-weekly online report on Sandy recovery activities, which is then edited by Tyrone Teekah of Corporate Communications. The Sandy Dart provides details that have been valuable to Parsons Brinckerhoff’s clients and stakeholders to stay up-to-date on recovery efforts.
When Sandy hit the East Coast, Leighton was two years into her pursuit of a Ph.D. degree through Antioch University’s Leadership & Change doctoral program. But three weeks later, she informed her adviser that she was changing her focus from urban planning and historic sites of conscience to an environmentally focused urban planning and infrastructure track more aligned with her growing concerns about the effects of climate change.
“As I started to see what was happening in these communities, and what Parsons Brinckerhoff was doing, I decided to make a change,” Leighton says. “I lost a year academically, but that’s how strongly I felt about what I saw in the aftermath of Sandy.
“It made no sense to me to focus my studies on something in the past, when so much was unfolding right in front of me in the present that needed attention,” Leighton says. “I knew this was where I needed to be.”
Her new course of study focuses on climate change and how important the integration of urban planning and infrastructure development are with respect to community adaptation, rebuilding, and resiliency in US cities.
“This was something that integrated my professional experience in architecture, planning, infrastructure, business development and marketing with my volunteer work for civic and community advocacy groups,” Leighton says. “I felt very passionate about how Sandy was not only impacting New York City, but how it impacted an entire region. I noticed throughout our recovery efforts how important it was for the community, government, and professional organizations to integrate their parts and work together.”
Prior to joining Parsons Brinckerhoff in 2011, Leighton’s passion was enhancing and preserving the built environment with a focus on public space and place, which influenced her involvement in writing two books: Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives and An Ellis Island Christmas.
“An Ellis Island Christmas is a children’s book that emerged from my work with the architects who restored Ellis Island along with the National Park Service,” she says. “I did a lot of research in the National Park Services’ archives, and as part of my role, gathered oral histories from immigrants who started their American life at Ellis Island.”
The illustrated book captured what it was like to leave everything behind to pursue the American dream, viewed from a child’s perspective in 1918, at the height of immigration to America. It was also inspired by Leighton’s own experience having immigrant parents who left their homes in Poland and Russia to start a new life in America.
Leighton co-wrote Grand Central while employed as Principal/Director of Business Development and Marketing for a New York architectural firm. The book explores the building’s social and cultural history, its architectural beauty and the successful effort in the 1960s to rescue the iconic structure from demolition. The book was reissued in 2012 as part of the centennial of Grand Central.
“There were people who didn’t believe Penn Station would ever be demolished, and then it happened,” Leighton says. “Grand Central is a gateway and a place to be celebrated. Its restoration became a fascinating case study in how the government and grassroots organizations needed to work together.”
“Every building, every space has a story,” she continues. “The joy of this project was that I, along with my co-author, got to be the voice of the building’s history and life.”
Leighton is part of a Parsons Brinckerhoff team that is working to build business and promote cohesiveness among the offices in her region and among clients in the northeast.
“If we adopt a resiliency measure in New Jersey, but we’re not looking at the impact on Staten Island or Manhattan, then what solves one problem in one place might negatively impact another,” Leighton says. “As a professional, that’s what really interests me — connecting the dots in whatever I do. Nothing is isolated.”
In Sandy-damaged areas there is still much to be done. “Whether it’s Coney Island or Staten Island, heavy rains still flood those areas,” she says. “We are on our way back, but one thing’s for sure … we still have plenty more issues to cover in Sandy DART.”
Leighton shares more impressions of the impact of Superstorm Sandy in a video interview for Bulletin.