NY's Fire Island assesses future after Sandy

Associated Press Published: November 23, 2012
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The work of replacing sand dunes that washed away in the storm is already under way. Workers are scooping up sand from the streets, putting it in bags and piling it up where the dunes once stood.

Ocean waves demolished at least nine houses, left in splinters on the oceanfront, and about 200 others are severely damaged and likely to be condemned. Dozens of other homes appear uninhabitable without major repairs. Others are covered in muck several inches deep.

"Decimated," Ocean Beach artist Kenny Goodman said last week as he returned to the shop he has owned for a quarter-century. When he first saw the damage from flooding in his store, he said, he was "really overwhelmed and sad — it's just a gigantic loss."

Goodman, a New Yorker who has been coming to Fire Island for 40 years, said he plans to rebuild his shop. "It will be different. Maybe by my grandchildren's time it will be back," but he also lamented, "It won't be like it was."

The Atlantic Ocean breached the narrow island in three places. Two of the breaches are being closed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the National Park Service is evaluating whether a third breach should be closed by the Army Corps or allowed to close naturally.

As far as rebuilding, many jurisdictions — federal, state, county, town and local — will have a say in what can and can't be rebuilt, said Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent Chris Soller. New York state has regulations about who can rebuild in some designated coastal erosion zones, although an official with the town of Brookhaven, which oversees some of the westernmost communities of the island's 17 hamlets and villages, said special variances could be issued in some cases to allow rebuilding in those zones.

Fire Island, like many Northeast communities harmed by Sandy, is beginning to reassess where and how to rebuild, Goldhirsch said.

"It's part of a new national dialogue," she said. "The governor has said he wants to rebuild smarter and better, and I think we have to think about how we are going to do this so it's better in the future. We have a lot to think about; there are no easy answers, no one answer."

Political leaders need to come up with a long-term plan for future development on the island, said Bowman, the Stony Brook professor.

"Not just a rapid-fire reaction to a catastrophe; this is going to happen again," he said. "Some of these things are going to be very expensive decisions, and we need a longer perspective."