Tour explores Fire Island's Sandy-ravaged shores

Park Service Ranger MaryLaura Lamont led a group

Park Service Ranger MaryLaura Lamont led a group on a winter's walk on the barrier beach of Fire Island to identify changes of the landscape created by Superstorm Sandy. (Feb. 24, 2013) (Credit: Randee Daddona)

A grove of overturned black cherry trees lay on the sand -- roots exposed -- toppled by giant ocean surges from superstorm Sandy.

Along Fire Island's nature-laden eastern end, the beach's primary dune, which had been 30-feet high, had been pummeled down to a series of giant lumps, and flooding had turned the cherry trees and clusters of Japanese black pines brown.

"Look at how the force of the water just ripped apart the roots of the black cherry trees," said MaryLaura Lamont, a National Park Service ranger and naturalist who led a two-hour public tour through Fire Island's Otis Pike High Dune Wilderness area on Sunday.

"I'm amazed at the destruction," Lamont said of the ravaged national seashore. "I have never seen a hurricane do this. It's incredible damage."

The 7-mile area, which stretches from Smith Point east to Watch Hill, is home to deer, foxes and other animals that depend on the storm-battered vegetation for survival.

Much of the plant life also helps stave off beach erosion.

"It looks like a tornado went through it," said Bob Heal, of Patchogue, one of six people who toured the area.

Heal, 62, a retired state worker, remembers fondly walking on wood-planked paths now washed away. "It's tremendous," he said of the storm damage. "The dunes were very high. It's a big change."

Despite the extensive damage -- in one approximately 70-yard swath stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great South Bay, waves stripped the area of plant life -- park officials said the ecosystem will return.

The upside, Lamont said, is that the track will be a "perfect" primary nesting spot for endangered piping plover birds.

Eddie Perez, an electrician from Bay Shore, walked through the battered beach grass with his wife, Seama Singh Perez, and said he was nostalgic for pre-Sandy times.

"I'm a little saddened," said Perez, 55. "I remember coming down here in 1974 as a kid. The dunes are gone."

Man-made dunes would be expensive or it could take "hundreds and hundreds of years" for them to form naturally, Lamont said.

"We're not going to see a 30-foot dune -- not in my lifetime," she said.

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