Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone encountered something unexpected yesterday as he walked the hairline paths of Ocean Beach, Fire Island, where superstorm Sandy swept homes off their foundations and tossed around brawny off-road vehicles like paper cups in the wind.
"Give us some dunes, brother!" a man shouted cheerfully toward Bellone as he toured the devastated barrier island for the first time since Sandy.
"It's only two weeks later, and they're already saying, 'Just give us some dunes and we'll clean up,' " Bellone said with a chuckle. "That's resiliency."
But the sheer destruction across the 32-mile barrier island won't make rebuilding easy. Officials estimate that close to 200 homes were lost to the storm surge that wiped away two-story-high dunes, and that another 160 structures may be uninhabitable due to flooding issues.
"If people think that we can put this back together the way it was -- and think that it's not going to happen again -- that's a very difficult task," said Chris Soller, superintendent of Fire Island National Seashore. "We can do something sustainable, but that doesn't mean it can be what it was here before."
As made evident Friday, that long process has started. Bellone watched workers in earthmovers fill huge, interwoven sandbags (known as "geocubes") to start shoring up a beach where stray pilings are all that remain of a boardwalk.
The county executive said his most vital role going forward would be helping Fire Island communities get state and federal assistance for rebuilding. This week, Bellone helped fast-track the Town of Islip's application for geocubes for Atlantique.
"There's no doubt that the island is at its most vulnerable point in decades," Bellone said.
His tour coincided with the first look that some residents were getting at their properties. Kenny Goodman, who sells jewelry and sculptures in Ocean Beach, stood outside his shop's front door, amid rusted belongings, and saw neighbor Ron Prince.
"How did you do?" Goodman asked his friend.
"I did bad. I have tremendous damage," Prince replied.
They talked of the water that filled their buildings and the nightmares they may face with their insurance companies.
"I was close to crying when I came into my house," Prince said, as down the street other residents traded hugs, briefly releasing their suitcases of reclaimed belongings.
"It's like a club for people who have been devastated," Goodman said of the scene.
Still, he expressed a bit of the optimism Bellone had seen.
"I will rebuild and reopen," Goodman said, explaining his love for Fire Island. "It's a gigantic heaven, and you don't have to be dead."