Initial reports of the storm’s impact on Fire Island were dire. And while it did breach the 32-mile island in two places, flood many of the 17 communities — during the storm, the bay and the ocean met, subsuming much of the island under feet of water — and ruin dozens of oceanfront houses, the verdict now is that it could have been far worse.
Unlike many of the hardest-hit areas, Fire Island had a robust system of dunes, ranging from 10 to 20 feet in height, that largely absorbed the ocean’s wrath, saving the bulk of the island’s 4,500 homes. The dunes were replenished only a few years ago, after many residents agreed to accept a new tax to help finance the work. Now the dunes are gone.
“The dunes served their purpose,” said Steven Jaffe, president of the Ocean Bay Park Association, one of the homeowner groups on the island. “But they were decimated, and now we have a winter coming and we don’t know what will happen.”
Fearful of facing the next big storm without the protection of the dunes, some community associations are already reviving them, filling government-sanctioned bags, known as Geocubes, with sand, and building a tight wall where the dunes once stood. They are also scooping up the mounds of sand that washed onto walkways — the island is known for its paths and red wagons where others have roads and cars — and returning it to the dunes.
But it will take the Army Corps of Engineers and federal money, residents say, to bring them all the way back to where they were.
As they follow the debate that has erupted over the wisdom of rebuilding on storm-lashed beaches, community leaders are making the case that Fire Island is critical to Long Island’s welfare. They cite one study suggesting that the island, with only a few thousand homes, and 200 year-round families, protects a stretch of the mainland with 13,000 homes and properties, valued at roughly $10 billion.
“We’re the first line of defense for Long Island, and the dunes are our first line of defense,” said Suzy Goldhirsch, president of the Fire Island Association, an umbrella group of community associations. “We’re self-reliant. We’re island people. But we need support.