When Mother Nature has her way
By SHOSHANNA MCCOLLUM
FIRE ISLAND—In late October 2012, the northeastern coast of the United States experienced a force of nature that hadn’t been seen in quite some time. Fire Island was hit particularly hard. Now, five years after the superstorm known as Sandy made landfall, the memories linger as recovery on the barrier island continues.
“Hurricane Sandy marked a period of rebuilding for me,” reminisced Judy Steinman. “My house, my village, my life… Sometimes I wonder how I found the strength to do it.”
At the age of 71, Steinman was widowed only two weeks prior to the Oct. 29 superstorm. The Ocean Beach house that she and her husband shared for decades to offer respite from the New York City heat, took heavy damage, like it had for so many of her neighbors.
However, Steinman has never been one to give up. A vocal Fire Island resident for years, she had run for Ocean Beach Village office twice, and while neither election bid was successful, she carried on. In addition to her appointments with the Ocean Beach Planning Board and Fire Island Association Board of Directors, Steinman was asked to co-chair the Windswept Committee – tasked with restoring the well-worn and storm-ravaged circa-1920s bayside structure that had been headquarters to the local day camp. Bitter infighting among faction groups has dragged on for years, but what once seemed like an impossible goal is nearing the final stages of completion.
In the meantime, Steinman elevated and repaired her Surfview Walk home; however, this was not the case for all Fire Islanders.
“Many did not have the wherewithal to redo a house,” recalled Carin Roth, broker at Fire Island Real Estate. “They took their insurance money and went on their way.”
An exodus of sorts put fixer-uppers on the market at bargain rates. Some sat vacant for years. A few eventually found investors, while others met the wrecking ball.
However, 2017 represented a turning point for the Fire Island real estate market.
“This past summer had a record number of sales,” said Roth. “We are running out of inventory.”
Roth credits this success to many factors, including her children, now agents themselves, taking advantage of tools that were not at her father’s disposal when he founded the business 60 years ago. But she added, “people forget.”
Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey released a report deeming the now-famous breach at Old Inlet as “stable.” Farther west, the Atlantic side of Fire Island has a more uniform look, with the solid beach overpass steps and manicured sand in every community, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Fire Island to Moriches Inlet progresses. Some might argue the project passed its first test, as high tides stirred by hurricanes Maria and Irma did not damage the spanking-new walkways, which in years’ past broke like matchsticks when any garden-variety nor’easter came ashore.
However, in Ocean Bay Park (OBP) the storm has not passed. Traffic Avenue remains an open item on the USACE checklist. While the OBP Homeowners Association declined to comment on this article, an officer confirmed homes were “closed and purchased,” but that their slated demolition had not yet been contracted. Yet, some of the Traffic Avenue houses were saved. Innovations in the art of house-moving meant that larger oceanfront homes once considered doomed due to their size could now be moved to other locations.
Jeremy Brownie of Brownie Companies is part of this new wave of post-Sandy building contractors on Fire Island.
“There were many ‘storm chasers,’ but we waited and set up later,” explained Brownie. “We got calls asking us to come back. The technology and tools we have today allow us to move more houses, better and faster.”
Founded in 1922, the four-generation-strong company was moving houses in Ocean Bay Park and reposting others in Point O’ Woods, in what he called “erosion work” projects back in the 1950s. The business relocated to Florida in the 1980s. After Sandy, they returned to Long Island with a few projects in Davis Park, and then expanded operations farther west. Their presence here again is a reminder that all things go full circle.
Five years later, the storm chasers Brownie spoke of have moved on, but he expects to stay a while longer.
“Even though they are building this nice big dune, the water isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “Mother Nature has her way.”
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