After Sandy's 'chaos,' Fishers Island preps for next big storm

A year after superstorm Sandy hit the region, tiny Fishers Island, 13 miles northeast of Orient Point, is still dealing with erosion and an airport that's not functioning to its fullest. Videojournalist: John Paraskevas (Oct. 28, 2013)

Fishers Island, 13 miles northeast of Orient Point, survived worse storms, but Sandy laid bare concerns for the isolated Southold Town community.

Trees fell and power went out with no backup generators for the utility company on the 7-mile-long island that's closer to Connecticut than New York. No power meant water service also failed. Ferry service -- the only way on or off the island other than by small plane -- was canceled.

Part of Hay Harbor Golf Club's No. 2 hole fell away when the cliff crumbled, the airport runways flooded and erosion on the east end was so severe, part of a swimming pool hung out over Block Island Sound.


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Even the past resurfaced, with soldiers' buttons, shirts and dog tags washing up, vestiges of an Army defense fort that was on the island from 1889 to the 1940s.

But no one was killed or injured. "We actually got very lucky the storm turned into New Jersey," Fishers Island Utility Corp. president Chris Finan said. "If it hit us directly, I don't know if anything would be left here at all."

But Sandy left a lasting impression. In the past year, local groups have sought grants, applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency money and changed some operations to be better prepared for the next big storm.

Among the challenges:

Upgrading the utility system to pinpoint outages.

Obtaining emergency radios for town highway department officials and enhancing fire department communications.

Repairing the storm-damaged airport electrical system and a seawall.

Finding ways to strengthen shorefront properties.

"We're pretty much on our own," said Louisa Evans, an island resident and member of the Southold Town Board. "When you're in the middle of a storm, it's not like anybody can come help."

Fishers Island has about 250 year-round residents. The population expands to more than 3,000 in the summer with returning vacation-home owners, including Abercrombie & Fitch chief executive Mike Jeffries. The island has one seasonal hotel, a doctor financed by private endowments and an ambulance boat that ferries the ill and injured to the closest hospital in New London, Conn.

Official duties are shared by the year-round residents, especially firefighters.

"There's a lot of people who are part of the firehouse and have other jobs they have to run out to," said State Police Trooper Kevin Drew, one of a few troopers who is posted on the island from May 1 to Dec. 1 each year.

Finan also manages Fishers Island Development Corp., which oversees roads, private property and some buildings on much of the island. Fishers Island Fire Department Chief Jeremy Doucette is also a lineman for the utility.

As the storm approached, Doucette and six other volunteer firefighters were in Brookhaven for wildfire training and had to scramble to get home on two different ferries to prepare for the storm. Had they not, the community would have been without about one-third of its firefighters, one-third of utility workers and half of the town employees, Doucette said.

"The main concern was getting these people back to the island because the boats were getting canceled," said Mike Imbriglio, Southold's deputy emergency preparedness coordinator for Fishers Island.

The utility company, which provides electricity, water, and telephone and Internet service, is still working to obtain grants to harden the system.

"One of the major impacts for us is the water system does not have a backup generator," Finan said. "When we lose power, we lose water as well."

New pipes and generators are top priorities. So is computerized mapping of the system to pinpoint problems and not have to shut down large areas for damage assessment.

"Roads were flooded, quite a few power lines went down and we determined that it was best to turn power down until after the storm," Finan said.

Some electric lines placed underground in the 1920s -- among the first in the nation to do so -- are now so old they need upgrades, a fact heightened by Sandy. "We have pretty old infrastructure everywhere," Finan said.

Fire officials use landlines and radios to communicate, but rely on a mid-island generator, which requires refueling every two hours, to power the repeater that keeps signals strong.

"We're still trying to work out where to have the repeater," Doucette said. "We haven't really conquered the backup generation system with that."

Communications among other officials can be difficult.

Fortunately, Doucette said, firefighters are also part of the highway department and have access to fire district radios.

"The fire frequency here is kind of the emergency be-all, end-all if we need to locate anybody or get a task completed," Doucette said.

The island prepared for the storm as it has for years.

The Fishers Island Ferry District moved its boats to protected space in New London, manager Donald Lamb said. The ambulance boat was moved to a secluded cove. The school district set up cots for the displaced, and used its email alert systems to send out critical notices, such as when the last ferry was leaving, Fishers Island school district principal Karen Loiselle Goodwin said.

The firehouse was a gathering point during and after Sandy for official status meetings, residents charging phones or utility crews grabbing a meal.

In the days after the storm, the ferry district hired local contractors to remove sand from the airport runways and seawall, and to clear roads, manager Donald Lamb said. One runway opened within a week, the second opened in the spring. Nighttime flights are still not permitted because there are no lights.

The district, which also manages the town-owned airport, is seeking reimbursement from FEMA to pay for repairs and is seeking other funding to harden the seawall.

"Remediation is good, but if what was there already flooded, what's the point?" ferry district assistant manager Gordon Murphy said.

Advance planning helped business as well. Steve Malinowski, owner of Fishers Island Oyster Farm, said crews sank the oyster nets in the harbor. In a pond where they grow seed oysters, which are sold to other harvesters, equipment was moved, covered, anchored and secured in place.

"If we had not taken precautions out at the site, we would have lost 100 percent," he said.

Overall, the island weathered the storm better than other parts of Long Island, a feat credited to its history of self-sufficiency. "People out here are pretty used to being by themselves," Doucette said. "It seems like chaos but it's structured chaos."

FISHERS ISLAND

Location: 13 miles northeast of Orient Point, 2 miles south of New London, Conn.

Population: 250 year-round, more than 3,000 in the summer

HISTORIC STORM DAMAGE

2012: Superstorm Sandy flooded roads and the airport, undercut dunes and downed trees

2011: Tropical Storm Irene caused widespread tree damage

1954: Hurricane Carol caused significant erosion

1938: The Long Island Express hurricane caused extensive damage

1815: An unnamed gale destroyed most of the island's trees

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