Chris Gurl returned to Fire Island Wednesday for the first time since superstorm Sandy to find his large, two-story oceanfront home heaved off its pilings, its underbelly partially exposed and its contents spilled out like toys in a sandbox.
"My kitchen is on the floor," Gurl said, fighting tears. Gurl, 43, came to Ocean Bay Park on an early ferry that was open only to Fire Island property owners, allowed back to assess damage, take pictures and clean.
But there was little Gurl could do. Yellow caution tape marked off his condemned property, and his home lay sideways, precariously slanted, with part of the structure on the pilings and the rest in a heap.
Gurl had seen aerial shots of the home he's owned since 1999 on the news. But looking at it from a few feet away was "unbelievable."
"The gravity of it -- it's overwhelming once you're here, standing on the ground," he said.
His reaction was echoed across the barrier island Wednesday, as homeowners disembarked from ferries to western Fire Island communities and learned of the devastation firsthand. Some residents in the middle of the island were relieved to find their homes unscathed, but most encountered some wind damage or flooding from Sandy's storm surge. The smell of mildew clung to many homes.
Nicole and Patrick Regne, both 48, were among the lucky ones. The Greenwich Village couple's Ocean Bay Park home lost a few shingles and had piles of sand beneath it, where a 6-foot-tall open storage area used to be, but they said neighboring houses were swept out to sea.
Ocean Bay Park was one of the barrier island's hardest-hit communities, with mounds of unrecognizable debris -- often the remnants of two homes collapsed together -- in some areas. Protective sand dunes were decimated, and many residents worried that even minor storms will cause major problems.
"We need much more help than we've been getting," said Fran Haselkorn, an Ocean Bay Park homeowner from Manhattan. "We're still totally vulnerable. . . . Not only are we not protected, the South Shore of Long Island is not protected as much."
Fire Island has historically been vulnerable to powerful storms. Because of that, engineers were planning to seal breaches and contractors were allowed on Fire Island to start shoring up properties within days of Sandy. But officials have said the barrier island will remain susceptible to storm damage.
Farther down the beach Wednesday, Lynda Dalrymple coped with the discovery that her home's first-floor, ocean-facing wall had been ripped away and her neighbors' house was leaning on hers for support, its satellite dish jutting into what had been Dalrymple's dining room. She tried to be cheerful as her husband worked on the house.
"When I first got here, I was devastated, but I'm good now," Dalrymple said as she looked out to the ocean from her crooked three-story summer home.
Dalrymple, who lives in East Setauket most of the time, said she raised five children on Fire Island. "I've spent years saying, 'Don't bring the sand into my house,' and now the beach is in my house," she said.
Gurl said his goal is to rebuild. "This is home. I'm not going to cut and run, I wasn't raised that way," the Brooklyn native said. "I don't want anything from the government, I just want my home."