My return to Fire Island, one month after Sandy

Commentary: I found my home, like the island, not so much destroyed as decaying from the onrush of nature

Homes on Fire Island, N.Y., Jan. 18, 2013. Superstorm Sandy struck Oct. 29, 2012, battering many oceanfront communities.
Mark Lennihan/AP

Eleven months ago, on the day after Thanksgiving, my parents, my sister and I rode the ferry across the Great South Bay to return to Fire Island. Thirty-one miles long but only half a mile wide, the island has the unlikely look, on a map, of a crack under a door. It is the middle link in a chain of barrier islands and peninsulas off the southern coast of Long Island. To the north lie the whitecaps of the Great South Bay; to the south, the rollers of the Atlantic Ocean. From the island's high oceanfront dunes, speckled with beach grass, you can see the water on both sides.

None of us had seen our house since Superstorm Sandy made landfall four weeks earlier, and I suspect most of our fellow passengers had not seen theirs either. The island had been closed for weeks. State troopers turned back drivers from the foot of the causeway while, on the island, emergency workers waded through floodwaters to disarm downed power lines.

I had followed the news for information on Fire Island, to little avail. What I could gather in the days afterward came in slow and scattered — aerial footage from a helicopter, a handful of photographs posted on Facebook, an email from a town official. On the night Sandy came ashore, a group of residents stayed on the island as the storm demolished the dunes and the bay gushed over the bulkheads. Much of the island was submerged. Waves smacked against the first-floor shingles of waterfront houses. After the island was reopened, my cousin encountered one of these holdouts and said he looked as if he had aged 10 years.

The long wait for Fire Island to be open again had dispelled the urgency and anxiety I had expected would accompany my return. By the time I boarded the ferry, I knew, more or less, what to expect: a flooded house, docks and boardwalks twisted beyond repair but also a sense of relief. It could have been much worse. Two hundred houses were destroyed; 4,000 remained. The atmosphere on the boat was not so somber. Were it not for the cleaning supplies, this might have been any fall weekend.

The trickle of news during the four-week wait further softened the storm's blow. It was as if instead of one night of destruction, Sandy had washed away the island's resistance over 30 days. What I saw when I arrived was not the sharp, shattered look of a disaster but the insidious creep of decay. If Breezy Point was Pompeii, Fire Island was Ostia, the Roman city by the sea that fell slowly to pieces.


The day of my return was mild and clear. Disembarking from the ferry, I could see the lighthouse near the island's western end. The tower, 168 feet tall and painted with four black and white horizontal stripes, roughly marks the end of the road on Fire Island. (From the top of the lighthouse, on a clear day, you could once see the Twin Towers — a reminder that Manhattan lies just 40 miles away.) Robert Moses, New York's master builder, tried to lay a highway down here, as he had on Jones Beach, a barrier island between Fire Island and Long Beach in the string leading west to the Rockaways and New York City. Moses made it only four miles.

The rhythms of modern life never quite reached Fire Island. Groceries, freight and people arrive mostly by boat. Once there, we travel on bicycles and pull our luggage in little wagons. There are only 300 permanent residents; most of the cottages, bungalows and modern beach houses in dense rows along the boardwalks are occupied six months out of the year. Most do not have air conditioning; almost none have heating, save for fireplaces. For this reason, there was less at stake in Fire Island's immediate recovery than in Breezy Point's, Staten Island's or the Jersey Shore's.

Yet it is still my home, one charmed by summer memories of childhood — Yankee baseball on the radio, the smell of charred cornhusks, hot afternoons bobbing in the surf. These things came to my mind as we turned off the dock (intact) and walked along the bay front (a blanket of sand and seaweed) to our street.

The willows, cedars, birches and Russian olive trees that we planted around our house have died, poisoned by saltwater.

The storm surge lifted our boardwalk street by a foot, making our little house look sunken and small. The grass was as dull as the peeling paint on the walls, and FEMA caution tape streaked across the front door. (Its imprint remains even now, despite our best efforts.) A kayak rested its nose on the walkway. All told, though, the exterior view offered few hints of the scope of the storm.

Inside, the water had drained, leaving a floor mottled with silt, as if muddy boots had danced from wall to wall. Condensation clouded the windows over the sodden couch, which, like the rest of the furniture, had floated to a new location. Ocean water had filled the fridge, washer, drier, dishwasher and oven. Our baseball gloves were brushed with mold. My father's guitar was filled to the brim with seawater.

I pulled dozens of damp, swollen books from the bookcases. Half were destined for the rubbish heap outside; their peers on higher shelves were spared. We hauled boxes of books out the front door to join the cushions, mattresses, couches and chairs that sprawled along the boardwalk. It looked, in the end, like a waterlogged yard sale.

The seawall

Had the damage been more severe, we — my family, our neighbors, the community — might have wondered if it was worth rebuilding. For years, it was wind and waves that destroyed houses on Fire Island — not rising water. But the past two years have brought storm surges we hardly saw in previous decades. The willows, cedars, birches and Russian olive trees that we planted around our house have died, poisoned by saltwater.

In the year that has elapsed since my return, both residents and outsiders have questioned the long-term settlement of coastal areas, where flood insurance must be federally funded, since no private insurer will take the risk. The New York Times found a low-lying home in Biloxi, Miss., valued at just over $180,000, that had absorbed $1.5 million in disaster funding over the last 10 years. Others suggested the Jersey Shore, for one, should rebuild farther from the Atlantic, with more respect for its power.

Fire Island got lucky; most people there have not had to make that decision this time around. But the grim forecast of rising sea levels haunted the time I spent there this summer, even on the most beautiful days. The grocery store, closed all summer, was a persistent reminder. The tide is coming in.

No one would argue for more than a restoration of the traditional set of coastal protections for Fire Island: replenished dunes on one side and bay-front bulkheads on the other. But will these barriers succeed in holding off the water's advance in the long term? Fire Island protects not just itself; it protects the densely populated South Shore as well. It is a seawall.

Fire Island shelters miles of homes, coves and low-lying downtowns from the breakers of the Atlantic Ocean. Towns such as Bay Shore, Sayville and Islip are built to withstand waves one-tenth the size of those that crash on Fire Island's broad beaches. From JFK Airport to Hampton Bays, a hundred miles of bay-front infrastructure relies on barriers from the Rockaways east. As Fire Island goes, so go a thousand houses behind it.

It is easy to forget that none of this land is geologically fixed, not even on our short human scale of time. The name Fire Island comes not from signal fires or brilliant sunsets but from a misreading of the 18th-century name Five Islands, a set of grassy isles whose contours shifted so wildly with the storms that when Moses arrived here in 1923 to plan the highway, the 30 years since the last survey had given New York State four new miles of land. The island's name is a tribute to its own territorial dynamism.

With settlement, builders and homeowners have demanded that the island resist nature's creeping entropy, of course. The Army Corps of Engineers dredges the inlets and pads the dunes to keep the ground firm beneath our feet. But Sandy breached the island in three places, one of which remains open water.

On the ferry back, the bay was sheepishly flat, low and glassy. As I stared into the water, I planned to return with taller bookshelves.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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