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THURSDAY UPDATE: Sandy Devastates Fire Island

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 31, 2012

Fire Island, the long barrier island off the southern coast of Long Island east of New York City, has been battered over the years by natural disasters like fires, "n'easter" storms and hurricanes. But nothing since the great hurricane of 1938 has hit the island like Sandy.

Fire Island "has been devastated," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Newsday, Long Island's principal newspaper, on Tuesday. "It will have changed in a number of ways."

Suffolk County sprawls from tightly packed suburban towns nearer to New York City to the potato farms and grand estates of the Hamptons on the eastern end. Sandy hit the entire county hard, with nearly everyone experiencing power outages and widespread flooding.

Even so, Bellone singled out Fire Island. He told Long Island News12, a local all-news cable channel, that his "biggest concern is Fire Island."

The superintendent of Fire Island National Seashore, Chris Soller, echoed Bellone's words. Predicting "dramatic changes" to the island's geography, he mentioned several breaches on the far eastern end of the island, with one so deep that it could effectively divide Fire Island into two separate islands.

UPDATE: The president of the Pines Property Owners Association, Jay Pagano, is reporting that this breach has corrected itself.

Fire Island is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Great South Bay on the other. When huge storms create pathways for the ocean to flow into the bay, it can have serious environmental consequences.

Fire Island consists of 17 settled communities interspersed by unspoiled wooded areas administered as a national park by the U.S. Interior Department. Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove are the two primarily gay towns.

Information about the effects of Sandy are still sketchy, because the very few residents still who live there after the summer season faced a mandatory evacuation. The ferries that normally ply Great South Bay have ceased. Their terminals on the mainland of Long Island were themselves flooded.

Sayville Ferry, which services the Pines and the Grove, experienced significant flooding. Although ferry service may resume as early as next week, county officials will have to weigh how much access to give visitors because of safety issues like downed wires.

Even emergency personnel have not been able to make it because of dangerous conditions in the bay. Adding to the isolation, the county's marine patrol boats were largely submerged by Sandy, Bellone told News12. Bellone met with multiple agencies Tuesday to try to figure out how to get to the island.

In the meantime, officials from the National Seashore can view the damage only from an airplane. After viewing aerial footage, Joe Williams, who oversees emergency services for Suffolk County, told Newsday that "most of the beaches are gone. The dunes are gone." The surging waters caused by Sandy actually overturned a Suffolk County police van that happened to be on the west end of Fire Island during the storm. Williams said the officers inside barely escaped before the vehicle was caught up in the wildly surging water that quickly swept it out to sea.

In an update, Soller warned that there are no functioning marinas for boats to anchor on the island. He strongly warned private boat owners not to venture out into the bay or attempt to land anywhere near Fire Island.

Describing "a very long and stressful day for all Fire Islanders," said Soller. Along with the president of the Fire Island Association, Suzy Goldrich, Soller vowed to "keep you informed (to the best of our ability) in a very complicated and challenging situation."

That same update warned that access to the island "is currently being strictly controlled," and that homeowners will be allowed back only "after the health and safety conditions on the island have been verified."

AP is reporting that at least 12 homes have disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean. Williams told Newsday that at least seven of the homes were in Davis Park, a town east of the Pines and the last settled area on its eastern end.

Soller said that 80 percent of Fire Island's houses sustained damage to varying degrees.

In an email statement, Pagano said that pools and decks of houses fronting the ocean along a wide swath of the Pines were extensively damaged.

In a later email, he reported that flooding is "quite extensive," with "debris and trees down throughout the community." Many of the boardwalks that are Fire Island's sidewalks are destroyed, as are all of the Pines' stairs that lead from the boardwalks to the beach, Pagano reported.

UPDATE: Ocean Walk, which runs east-west along nearly the entire length of the Pines, has experienced damage, especially the areas around Sail, Nautilus, Ozone and Pine walks. All of these areas are low lying, which would have made them more susceptible to water rushing over the first dune line. "I have reports that houses on both sides of Ocean Walk have been affected by the storm," Pagano reported.

Much more serious is the destruction of the dunes "along the length of the community." The dunes are the front line of protection. The Pines has been involved for several years in expensive dune restoration.

The only firsthand reports from the Pines have come from Karen Boss, who, with her husband Walter, owns homes and businesses in the town. The couple lives in the Pines year-round and are among the estimated 60 to 120 people who opted to remain on the island despite the evacuation order.

In an telephone interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Karen Boss described the Pines Harbor as "completely submerged." Photos of the harbor show water going well onto land. In addition, there are reports that many of the bulkheads along the bay built have been destroyed. The bulkheads, built on community and privately owned property, serve to protect the island from erosion. But they couldn't withstand the surging onslaught of water caused by Sandy's high winds.

This is the second year in a row that a mid-fall natural disaster devastated the Pines. Last year, a fire swept through the downtown harbor area. The destruction encompassed much of the commercial property, including the town's main bar and nightclub.

One of the buildings was able to be replaced. It reopened in the middle of the summer. The other building is still under construction -- or rather was, as its reconstruction once again remains uncertain.

In addition, there was already substantial damage done to Ciel, the community's only hotel and the only all-concrete structure on Fire Island, when repair of the harbor bulkheads undermined its structure. The fate of Ciel is now even more uncertain, which unfortunately applies to the other buildings facing the harbor.

The Pines, a community known for its rolling boardwalks that follow the dune patterns, is perhaps the most famous gay resort in the world. It and Cherry Grove made the words "Fire Island" synonymous with "gay" for many people, much to the annoyance of the other communities.

The inference was so well known by 1963, gay icon Judy Garland, in her final screen appearance, could have her character say "I've drunk enough to sink all of Fire Island," and everyone knew exactly what she meant.

Originally a post-war development of modest bungalows, it became a glamorous playground for New York City's most fashionable gay men and their friends. Over the years, residents have included fashion designer Calvin Klein, Hollywood kingpin David Geffen and Broadway composer Jerry Herman.

In recent years, the Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association has become deeply involved in projects like beach reclamation and dune restoration. Once again, residents may have to dig into their pockets to help resuscitate the town's fragile ecology as well as their own property. Although this time, it is possible that the federal government may also come to their aid in the broad response to Sandy.

The Grove, which predates the Pines by several decades, was entirely destroyed by the 1938 hurricane. Both communities are known for their resilience and dedication to rebuilding after natural disasters.

In an email message, Pagano expressed hope that the county and the Town of Brookhaven, which encompasses the Pines and Grove, will expedite the building permits necessary to begin restoring homes and businesses.

UPDATE: In a Thursday email message Pagano reported that "several state and federal agencies that have a role in beach replenishment" reassured him that they "are committed to assisting us in beach replenishment. The issue that confronts us is where to get the sand and how to get it onto our beach."

He ended with a reassuring message to homeowners and visitors to the Pines. "I know that many are very concerned about what will happen to the pines - Will it survive this terrible storm? The answer is YES. Our community is special and part of what makes it special is it's physical beauty but it is also the dedication and love that we have for the Pines. I have been on the island for 40 years. We have had worse storms and we have come together, cleaned up, and rebuilt. We don't let them knock us out."

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).