In late June, Don and Konki Sussman finally moved into their rebuilt oceanfront house on Fire Island, 20 months after superstorm Sandy mercilessly swallowed their beach home and spat it back out in pieces. On that first night, they slept on air mattresses in their new master bedroom and were met with a wonderful welcome back the next morning.
"When we woke up, we could see dolphins jumping in the water," Don Sussman says. "It was quite amazing."
The Sussmans had elected to raise their home 12 feet to protect it from future storms, and after everything they'd lost after Sandy, they gained a delightful bonus: an ocean view. Before, their one-story home in the community of Summer Club was hidden by the dunes. "We could hear the ocean at night, but we could never see it," Sussman says.
For Fire Island homeowners such as the Sussmans, last summer was the summer that wasn't, and this season is the first time they've been able to move back in. Some, like the Sussmans, added significantly to their $250,000 federal flood insurance payout to imagine a home of their dreams. The Sussmans rebuilt from scratch, spent at least an additional $750,000 to create amenities such as a saltwater, infinity-style swimming pool, raised on their oceanfront deck like a giant floating fish tank.
Other Fire Islanders, such as Atlantique homeowner Nancy Slotnick and her husband, Dan, strove to reconstruct, spending as little as possible beyond their $250,000 insurance check. They and their 9-year-old son, Josh, also finally slept in their brand-new beach home this season and, like the Sussmans, gained an ocean vista they didn't have before they raised their home on pilings.
"It's such a happy ending to the story," Nancy says, sitting at the dining table in the great room, looking over a spacious new deck and the undulating waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Dan Slotnick still chokes up too much to speak when he recalls the trauma of the first few months after the 2012 storm. He and Nancy rent an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and they had sunk all their savings into a down payment on the Fire Island home they bought in 2003. Dan, a 54-year-old therapist, and Nancy, a 47-year-old dating coach, consider the Atlantique property their prize possession. "This was like our house, even though we're not here year-round," Nancy says.
They had first seen the damage in a photo in Newsday in November 2012, showing how the house had spun, landing like Dorothy's in "The Wizard of Oz." The home had broken apart and their belongings spilled out. A kayak stuck out of what had been their brick fireplace.
"At the time, it was devastating to see your dead house in the newspaper," Nancy says. The couple worked with Kismet-based contractor Sam Wood to rebuild, adding about $50,000 to their flood insurance payout. Says Wood: "Between the time we met and sitting here at this table, there was a lot of heartache."
The original house, built in 1971, looked like a ski lodge: dark decor, huge brick fireplace. The new house is completely different, from an open floor plan to sliding-glass doors running the length of the ocean-facing wall, to bright, retro-colored furniture.
Wood worked with the couple to design a simple, 1,150-square-foot-home modeled after a typical 1960s Fire Island beach house: The living area runs the length of the house, with a kitchen, dining area and living room. Three side-by-side bedrooms run parallel to the living area at the back of the house. The couple used green materials, including bamboo flooring, and a space-saving bathroom toilet that has a sink perched on top of the tank, so water used washing hands refills the toilet tank. An 18-by-40-foot deck along the front of the house is big enough to throw the celebratory dance party Nancy is planning.
"We're not millionaires, but we feel like millionaires," Dan says. He says he loves sitting at the new kitchen island, looking at the ocean. "It's just really soothing. I see when the birds are coming and it's time to go fishing. It's just really perfect."
Not everyone was able to rebuild using insurance money. Ron Prince, 58, of Bayside says he was thinking of selling the home he co-owned in Ocean Beach before the flood, and the storm was "the final straw," he says. The retired accountant sold to a contractor for what he says was about $200,000 less than he could have gotten before the damage. His insurance payout didn't make up the difference, he says. After 14 years as a homeowner, he's now spending the summer in a shared Ocean Beach rental.
Rhoda and Marty Payson of Scarsdale also crunched the numbers when deciding what course of action to take after just the first floor of the Seaview house they've owned for 23 years flooded, and the wind knocked a tree into their chimney and through the roof of their sunroom. Marty saw four alternatives: Put up a "For Sale" sign and hope they could sell it for the value of the land; cosmetically patch it and then sell it; leave it the same height and renovate but risk another flood event; or raise the house and repair it, putting in the additional funds it would take to become whole.
He and Rhoda conferred with their two grown daughters, asking them what they wanted their parents to do with the money that would otherwise one day be theirs. "Do you want it in the bank or in the ground?" Marty says he asked them. "Essentially, we are spending your inheritance." Their daughters urged them to rebuild the first floor and raise the house, and the Paysons did, in large part because of the joy their three grandchildren get from visiting the summer home.
Down the block on the Seaview bayfront, Judy and John Brady of Dix Hills made the same choice, renovating the damaged first floor of their summer home using their $60,000 insurance payout and adding more of their own funds. "Everything had to be ripped out," says John, 57, a physician who commutes to work by boat in the summer. The couple elevated the home and added hurricane-grade windows. John says that gives him peace of mind. "The next storm, we don't have to worry," he says.
While they were revamping anyway, Judy redid the living area in soothing blue and the kitchen with seafoam-green glass backsplash tiles and granite countertops. They also added an old-fashioned touch -- a dumbwaiter to allow them to hoist their groceries and luggage up to the first floor instead of carrying them up the new stairs to the raised home.
"We feel lucky we're able to do it," says Judy, 51, a stay-at-home mother to the couple's two teenagers, Johnny, 16, and Grace, 13. She says she feels for people who own Fire Island homes that their grandparents built and passed down generations and don't have the resources to repair them. And she says she realizes she is blessed that she wasn't trying to rebuild her primary home, like so many Long Islanders. The family was able to get back into their beach home on July Fourth.
'EVERYTHING IS A CHALLENGE'
Don and Konki Sussman have advanced to real mattresses, but they are still on the floor of their beach house, which is finished on the outside but is still being furnished. "Sit on the couch we just got," Don says one recent weekend.
Rebuilding has been a challenge, he says. The freight dock in Ocean Beach hasn't yet been completed, so shipping furniture over from the mainland is a logistical nightmare. "Everything is a challenge," he says.
The Sussmans, who met on Fire Island, lived on the island full-time for 16 years when Don owned a now-closed Ocean Beach-based landscaping business called Pistils and Peat. They have summered only in their beachfront home for another 16 years, while spending winters in Manhattan, where Don, 63, is president of another landscaping company.
They loved their old beach house, he says, but when they had to rebuild, they redesigned it completely, while incorporating what Konki calls "artifacts" from the old house, such as a glass sink they were able to recover from the sand.
"My wife was inspired by a then-recent trip to visit her family in Thailand," Don says. The couple stayed at a resort unit where the bedrooms were separate from the living area and they had a private swimming pool. "That's where she came up with the idea of this house."
The Sussmans and their two daughters, Samantha, 24, and Allegra, 20, must exit the living room and walk across a "courtyard" deck to enter their bedrooms. The house is 1,500 square feet inside, and another 1,500 square feet outside. The interior decor is white; the Sussmans brought in distressed dark wood beams that run across the ceilings in all the rooms. They added heat and air-conditioning, which they hadn't had before. Most of the exterior of the house is cedar, and the decks are mahogany.
The swimming pool runs across the front deck. "The pool is really a work of art," Don says. "The foundation is like a tank. It is built to maintain this intense weight and pressure."
Says Konki: "The whole idea of this house is to come up the stairs and see the vista." Don Sussman adds a caveat that the couple may lose that view if a proposed future dune project is installed, which Sussman says he would prefer to have to protect the island.
Konki says she is relieved the exterior is finally completed, and she is heartened that her daughters seem to be coming out to stay with them more.
"They have brought friends, which is something they never did at the old house," Konki says. Why does she think they come more often? "It's impressive."
Says Don: "We loved our old house, but we're going to love this house."