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Rebuilding After Sandy: A Breach In The Wilderness At Fire Island National Seashore

Four months after Hurricane Sandy gouged a breach in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness at Old Inlet on Fire Island National Seashore, the ocean has refused to repair it. NPS photo.

Editor's note: Today, four months after Hurricane Sandy battered and bruised the Eastern Seaboard, the disarray the storm delivered across many units of the National Park System continues to be cleaned up. Some damage remains to be discovered. In a series of stories the Traveler is looking at the impacts of Sandy, how Park Service officials are looking to the future, and what advice outside stakeholders have to offer.


Barrier islands are creatures of the seas, cast about and pushed around by the waves and currents. Proof of that can be found today at Fire Island National Seashore along the New York coast, where the barrier island it sets on was cut in two as well as shaved a little narrower in places by Hurricane Sandy.

Though damage to infrastructure on the national seashore was minimal compared to that incurred by other units of the park system along Eastern Seaboard, there was a surprising amount of movement to the natural ecosystem.

"We found that there was widespread dune erosion and overwash," said Cheryl Hapke, a coastal geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who inspected the barrier island after the storm passed. "On average, the dunes eroded back 70 feet -- the equivalent of 30 years of change. Our data also showed that dunes lost as much as 10 feet of elevation."

At times storms also sever barrier islands in two or more pieces, as can be seen at Fire Island National Seashore in the wake of Sandy. In most cases at the national seashore, breaches such as the one at Old Inset in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness are filled back in under the guidelines of the seashore's Breach Contingency Management Plan. That's how the breach at Smith Point County Park, which lies within the seashore's boundaries and also was created by Sandy, was quickly repaired. But the breach in the wilderness area for now simply is being watched. To date it has neither demonstrated signs of increasing in size or filling in, according to seashore officials.

“Because this particular breach occurred within the boundaries of the designated wilderness area, the recommendation was to monitor it for 45-60 days to see if it would just close on its own without intervention," said Paula Valentine, the seashore's public affairs officer. "And it has been long past that 60-day mark, and they are still monitoring its progress."

Due to its location in the Otis Pike wilderness, the breach is not disrupting any activities other than perhaps long walks along the beach. That's not the case when Cape Hatteras in North Carolina is breached by storms. In 2011, Hurricane Irene breached the barrier island and took out Highway 12, the two-lane highway that runs down the heart of the island and to Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

But the breach on Fire Island nevertheless could cause problems, noted Ms. Valentine. For one, it could lead to impacts to Long Island properties across from the breach.

“It could affect the properties by making them more vulnerable to higher water levels, being across from a breach, as more water goes in," she explained. "Also, depending on which way the wind blows, it sounds like there are benefits to having the breach there because it serves as a pressure valve and water can go out just as easy as it goes in.

“And other factor is the water quality. Having the breach there has allowed for the water quality, the exchange of water between the ocean and the bay, to increase dramatically, and that’s affecting water quality. It's affecting salinity, which may or may not, salinity-wise, be good for the life in the bay."

It also could be allowing more starfish, also known as sea stars, into the bay, where they can reach and feed upon shellfish beds, the seashore spokeswoman said.

While Fire Island National Seashore didn't sustain the amount of damage as did nearby Gateway National Recreation Area, repairing what damage did occur and getting the seashore ready for the summer season is a struggle.

"There certainly have been impacts on all of our boardwalks that brought people over the dunes down to the beach. They were all sheared off, if not destroyed entirely," said Ms. Valentine. "But that’s relatively minor, compared to the damage to homes and when you have structures built in such a vulnerable location. Our facilities are already positioned very wisely behind the dunes and back off the bay a little bit."

But marinas have been damaged, trails impacted, shorelines eroded. All seashore-owned boardwalks connecting Field 5 and the Fire Island Lighthouse were destroyed and removed. The bayside dock used by water taxis was destroyed, as were other boardwalks connecting the lighthouse to the dock and the beach. The Burma Road, which passes in front of the lighthouse, was also damaged during the storm, and dunes fronting the lighthouse also were leveled by the storm. The area known as Lighthouse Beach, which has long been used by nude sunbathers, will no longer be available as a clothing-optional area due to the loss of the eye-obstructing dunes and complaints of improper behavior.

"We hope to have most park facilities reopened by Memorial Day weekend," said Fire Island Superintendent Chris Soller. "However, there is no guarantee that everything will be up and running by summer."

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This 2006 photo of the Bessie White wreckage shows dunes close to the wreck. NPS photo.

Sandy also revealed some of the past, as well. The Bessie White, a freighter hauling coal to Newfoundland, ran aground near Smith Point County Park in 1922. Over the decades storms have covered, and uncovered, the remains of the wreck. Sandy once again revealed the ship's hull for onlookers.

Seashore photos show the wreck's proximity to sand dunes back in 2006, and how far from the dunes it appeared after Sandy, a photo that points to the power of the ocean in moving sand.

"That gives you a good idea of how much volume of the beach and the dunes were scarped away during the storm," Ms. Valentine said.

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This shot of the Bessie White wreck, taken after Hurricane Sandy, shows the extent to which dunes were scoured away. NPS photo.

Just a month prior to Sandy, the wreck had been covered by sand, she added.

"After storms it gets scoured away, and then during the summertime the sand fills back up again, covers it over. But not a bit of it was exposed earlier in September.”

Moving forward, the spokeswoman said seashore officials are well aware that the breach at Old Inlet is likely an indicator of future breaches.

"The USGS has done a lot of studies, and they have done studies on coastal vulnerability, and you certainly would think with rising sea level, and increasing frequency of storms, that it would just be a logical conclusion that there would be more breach incidents," she said.

With that in mind, inhabitants of barrier islands need to plan wisely where to build.

Barrier islands such as those on which Fire Island, Cape Hatteras, and Cape Lookout national seashores set are at the mercy of the seas. Manmade efforts to thwart the oceans through the use of jetties or groins might work in the short-term, but never in the long run, according to Robert Lillie, a geology professor at Oregon State University who wrote Parks and Plates, the Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments, and Seashores.

"Swirling longshore currents scoop out sand from the 'upstream' side of the jetty and deposit it in the calmer waters behind the jetties, burying condos and other buildings. On the other end of a barrier island, where the sand should have been deposited, waves eat away and erode the island. Far better to let nature take its course, and learn to design and plan and live accordingly!" he writes.

Coming next week: Assateague Island National Seashore officials planning, and building, with climate change in mind.

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As a life long resident of the Gulf Coast it's kind of amusing to see articles like this. We've lived with this kind of thing so long it just doesn't seem to be noticed. Almost every tropical disturbance of any size usually cuts the barrier islands along the Texas coast. Mostly they silt back in pretty quickly. It's my opinion that one benefit is better water in the bays and the bays usually thrive while the new guts are open. Enjoy it, but be careful. Tidal activity around these new cuts can be very strong.

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