Sandy evacuated Fire Island. Ocean Beach is still fortifying against storms
Fire Island is essentially a big pile of sand with a whole lot of development. With less than a mile between the bayside and the ocean, hurricanes like the 2012 Superstorm Sandy have lasting impacts on the barrier island.
The inhabited stretch of it is about seven miles long — but just a couple of blocks wide in the Village of Ocean Beach, one of the incorporated governments on Fire Island. It’s known for its nightlife, hotels, waterfront restaurants, and miles of beachfront. And thousands and thousands of summer tourists allow full-time Fire Island residents — just a few hundred of them — to survive year round.
“You have a seasonal community here. And that's the thing: this place survives," said Jim Mallott, the owner of The Albatross bar in Ocean Beach. "Everybody is survived by — the infrastructure, restaurants, kids camps and fire departments and all the rest of the stuff that makes a community — June, July and August."
Tourists stopping in during the summer months are usually more concerned with sun and surf than they are with climate change. But for the people who make a living out here, Mallott said the threat of sea level rise is imminent.
Ten years ago this Saturday, Fire Island was evacuated because of the destruction brought by Sandy. WSHU's Higher Ground explored the reconstruction still underway a decade later.
Mallott, who is also the mayor of Ocean Beach, found himself in a position unlike any other after Sandy.
“I feel like King Canute, keeping the waves back,” Mallott said in 2021. “You know, you sit there on the throne and tell the waves to go back and the people behind you are saying, 'come on, you're not working on enough.'”
Fire Islanders are used to dealing with extreme weather. But Sandy was different because, for the first time in years, residents were forced to evacuate the island.
“I was thrown in the defendant,” Mallott said. “It didn't scare me, you know, I didn't falter. You know, I said, 'okay, what's the first thing we got to do? We got to protect this place from fire. So we're going to disconnect every gas tank that's in town. Let's get that done.'"
"Let's button up the houses. It was one thing after another, and then people wanted to come back here, which was a pretty daunting thought that people would just get back on the boat and come out here. Because everything was flooded. Everything was broken,” he continued.
Ocean Beach was given millions in taxpayer dollars to help rebuild and raise downtown after the storm.
And as of last year, there were millions of dollars left to go.
“Thirty-million dollars worth of federal money was spent so far,” Mallott said. “We've got another 20 to go. We're doing a drainage system now that we're working on to drain downtown.”
Paying for resiliency
In 2021, Congress approved a plan — debated for around 70 years — to fund the Fire Island to Montauk Point Project, know as "FIMP." This initial $7 billion investment would harden the entire south shore of Long Island by beach replenishment, dune restoration, and voluntarily raising homes and businesses.
Coastal communities across the coastal U.S. are building higher to get out of the way of rising sea level. "Climate change is really going to change the future of Long Island," Alison Branco, director of climate adaptation for The Nature Conservancy in New York, told Higher Ground last year.
"My concern is that we're not viewing [FIMP] as a short-term solution that people are hoping that this will be a long-term solution, that we will continue to nourish the beach for 30-50 years or whatever," she said. "And not ever invest in the really important planning to come up with some longer term solutions."
The federal park service that monitors the island's wilderness, the Fire Island National Seashore, mandates that hardened structures, like a seawall, for protection, have to work with the natural process.
Suzy Goldhirsch, the president of the Fire Island Association, which works to protect the interests of the17 communities here, said local tax districts were created to fund the replenishment of 20-foot-tall sand dunes.
She said it's part of the spirit local residents have about the island's stewardship.
"People who live out here year-round are experts at bartering services," Goldhirsch said. "You have topsoil. I have two-by-fours. We'll make a deal. So, caring for Fire Island transcends personality. And it becomes, 'we're all in this together.'"
What's worth saving
Fire Island is a unique place for a lot of reasons — for example, there are no cars. When the Fire Island National Seashore was created, the federal agency mandated the island be roadless to protect the natural beauty. Bikes and golf carts are the best way to get around.
"Fire Island is such a delicate place. And I think you know it's going to get more difficult and difficult over time," said Jordan Raphael, a park biologist for the 32 miles of beach and wilderness on the island.
Most people are walking around in swimsuits with ice cream cones in hand. Kids are barefoot. Off the main road, they hop on their bikes and zip down side streets to the beach.
Steve Brautigam, the village administrator of Ocean Beach, points out a pile of bicycles at the entrance to a children's summer camp; there are no cars on fire island, so bikes and golf carts are the best way to get around.
“You know, it's right on the water,” Brautigam said. “And the camp has sailboats. And you can see the kids, they ride their bikes to camp from the surrounding areas and in the village. They get their sailboats, they have docks here. This is a great source of community pride.”
Rachel’s Bake Shop is one of Ocean Villages businesses that's been raised since the Sandy. It’s featured on an interactive federal NOAA map that demonstrates sea level rise over time. The map allows users to click through the timeline and see when the water will eventually be at their front door.
Rachel’s front door is now raised at least 8 feet above sea level.
"The government is behind this project. And is supporting it financially. So I mean, Rachel just raised their’s, and they’re encouraging others," Brautigam said. "They're getting killed with the insurance. That's the driving force. I guess the village board could do something but it could be a huge hardship for them to force the downtown to resolve their houses, or all their buildings."
The village also had to build up the ferry terminal so that hundreds of thousands of tourists can reach its downtown and Fire Island beaches.
And it’s not just storms they have to worry about. Brautigam said the flooding is becoming worse, and more frequent every year.
Cheryl Hapke worked at the United States Geological Survey when Sandy hit. She said 2012 hurricane was unlike any storm she’d ever seen in her career.
"We built sea walls. We built to re-nourish the beaches. We do everything to attempt to keep the beaches where we want them to be the beaches and the marsh lands — we want to hold them in place for our own benefit," Hapke said in 2021.
For centuries, Fire Island has taken the brunt of storms that hit coastal New York. Hapke said it’s a wonder it’s still here.
"Sandy is not a renewable resource. So at some point in time, it will not be economically viable to continue to nourish the beaches to keep them in place," she said. "They are a band-aid. These are solutions that can work for now. We need to reconsider. It's basically changing the paradigm of how we view living on the coast."
Environmentalists, like Hapke Branco, said they are skeptical whether the goal of FIMP or local plans that replenish sand dunes are the best solution to be better protect coastal communities against future storms.
"That's $7 billion that we can't spend on good planning for new shoreline management; that we can't spend on buying homes that are vulnerable; that we can't spend on helping people relocate to higher safer ground," Branco said, referring to Montauk — another New York community that is planning a coastal retreat to move away from the eroded beach.
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