Fire Island, Slammed by Sandy, Says It's Back

The ferry terminal that once welcomed visitors to Fire Island's Ocean Beach community is gone. The police station and community center that stood nearby are also gone, declared structurally unsound. Some homes still have several feet of sand inundating living rooms, but in other places there are signs of recovery.

While the damage inflicted by Sandy remains evident in many places in this resort community east of New York City, business owners and elected officials did their best Friday to put on a positive face and declare that most restaurants and shops have reopened and are ready for a thriving summer tourism season.

"You talk to some people, people who came in the summer and they're like, 'You guys are open?  I thought you got wiped off the map,'" said John Gerace, who owns Mermaid Market. The store has been open since January and now sports a sign reading "Nice try, Sandy." 

Fire Island officials now estimate that up to ninety percent of the damaged stores are open for business, including hotels and restaurants.

"Fire Island is a special place and we want people to know that Fire Island is back," Ocean Beach Mayor James Mallot said at a news conference on the village green as power saws whirred in the distance. Up the street, workers were unloading a ferry full of construction materials.

Business owners have organized a $100,000 public relations campaign to promote tourism on the 32-mile barrier island, using television, radio and print ads, said Scott Hirsch, a restaurateur and organizer of the effort. He said businesses kicked in whatever they could; some gave $250, others $500 or more.

John Randazzo, who owns three restaurants and two ice cream shops, said it was imperative for him to recover and reopen.

"I have 100 employees," Randazzo said. "If I don't open, they don't have jobs."

The resort community saw 200 homes washed away in the storm. Rising floodwaters from the Atlantic Ocean pushed past 15-foot dunes, leaving several feet of sand inside some living rooms.

Fire Island has just 300 permanent residents, but on summer weekends, the population swells to 75,000. Many of the houses that range from multilevel palaces to rustic bungalows are vacation homes for the Manhattan wealthy. Others are summer shares for more middle-class clientele. A couple of communities among the island's 17 hamlets and villages are favorite destinations of gay and lesbian visitors. Cars are banned in the summertime and most people tote their gear in little red wagons.

"It was a heartbreaking feeling," Randazzo said of the damage when he first inspected his businesses after the October storm. "But I knew we had to get going and rebuild."

Gerace said he opened Jan. 1, primarily to serve the legions of construction workers who converged on the island for repair work. He said two refrigerators in his market still need to be repaired.

"It's still going on," he said of the recovery. "It's going to be going on all summer, but we are ready. It's going to be the same beach you remember, the same smiling faces and the same great food."

"It's truly a miracle," said Suffolk county executive Steve Bellone, who credited the resilience of the island's residents for the quick recovery.

Still, restoration work on Fire Island is far from complete.  Repairs to docks and protective dunes could take years, according to Ocean Beach's mayor.  In addition, many homeowners are still trying to restore their living spaces to what they were before the storm.

Connie Bilello returned to her home Friday for the first time since Sandy.  Her worst fears about her home were not realized.

"It's not as bad as I thought it would be," Bilello said.  "I think the whole island will be back to where it was very quick."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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