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Fire Island evacuation order hurt businesses, owners say

Crowds were sparse in the Ocean Beach section

Crowds were sparse in the Ocean Beach section of Fire Island on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016, even after a voluntary evacuation order was lifted. Photo Credit: Newsday / Scott Eidler

Labor Day Weekend should have meant big bucks for Long Island’s coastal shops and restaurants, but with Tropical Storm Hermine and a voluntary evacuation of Fire Island keeping visitors away, business owners were left mourning money lost.

What’s been called “the storm that wasn’t” left crates of produce unused at Fire Island restaurants and caused sales to drop in Montauk shops after thousands fled beaches during what is often the busiest weekend of the year, owners said.

“There’s no makeup from this. You can’t recover from this,” said Kurt Smith, owner of Flair House and A Summer Place at Ocean Beach on Fire Island.

The popular summer community was expected to draw 10,000 visitors this weekend, but only saw several hundred, said George Hesse, chief of police in Ocean Beach Village.

“People are upset,” he said. “They wanted to enjoy the last weekend of summer. It’s disappointing.”

As it became apparent that Hermine wouldn’t realize its forecast potential, Fire Island merchants scrambled to call their employees back to work, many of whom had left the South Shore barrier island on Sunday.

Many restaurants, including Baywalk Cafe in Ocean Beach, were stuck with excess food after placing big orders for the holiday weekend.

“We just have a lot of fruit,” manager Stephanie Marrone said. “We just have to find a way to use it or take a loss.”

Merchants emphasized that their shops would remain open through Columbus Day weekend, but said there is little they can do about the lost Labor Day weekend revenue.

“It was a pretty crummy way to end the season,” Marrone said.

Some in the community said the call for a voluntary evacuation was premature, and that better procedures should be in place. The evacuation order was lifted Monday morning.

“When you do that [issue a voluntary evacuation order early] and a storm doesn’t really hit, it makes people apprehensive” about leaving the next time, Hesse said.

The voluntary evacuation “pretty much ruined the weekend,” said Jon Randazzo, owner of five stores in Ocean Beach, including two ice cream shops and the Baywalk Cafe. “It was a bit of an alarmist thing to do.”

But Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who issued the evacuation order on Saturday, said in an interview that lifting it Sunday night instead of Monday morning would have had “little practical impact” since those who had decided not to ride out the storm had already left.

“We can understand frustrations when predictions from the National Weather Service turn out not to be what they thought,” Bellone said. “At the same time, we’ve been through a storm like Sandy, where it’s worse than predicted. So when you get a storm that is less than predicted, that’s a good thing.”

He said the decision for the voluntary evacuation was “made on a consensus basis” with county emergency officials and ferry companies.

“We had to make decisions based on information we had at the time,” Bellone said.

He noted that the county was still under a tropical storm watch Monday.

While the evacuation affected only Fire Island, other beach communities saw business drop as the weather forecast sent visitors home early.

“The most damage may have been caused by the forecast: economic damage,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said.

Business was quiet Monday on Freeport’s Nautical Mile after a busy couple of days leading up to the expected storm.

“We were expecting worse,” said Derek Houdek, the manager of Otto’s Seaside Grill, of the standing room-only crowds on Saturday and Sunday. “It’s always an important weekend.”

Downtown Montauk was also decidedly slower on Monday.

Debra Murray, a sales clerk at Homeport Town clothing and gift shop said business was down about 25 percent, but the cooler temperatures also boosted sales from the people who stayed.

“We had a lot of people who came in looking for heavier clothing,” Murray said.

The Village of Greenport on Long Island’s North Fork was “packed” Saturday and Sunday, but by Monday the streets were largely empty, said Bill Claudio, owner of Claudio’s, a waterfront restaurant in the village.

“We kind of expected what we’re getting,” he said. The 146-year-old restaurant has lost its share of summer days to weather over the years and this was no different, he said.

“We are accustomed to the ups and downs of the seasons over the years,” Claudio said.

Businesses in at least one area were faring well through the forecast: Long Beach, where surfers were flocking to the big waves brought by Hermine. They were undeterred Monday by rip tide warnings even as life guards closed the beach.

“It seems like every surfer in the tristate area is here,” said Luke Hamlet, owner of the Long Beach Surf Shop. “Any storm brings the potential for good waves. The summer’s waves were kind of flat and any swell brings that pent-up demand.”

John Asbury, Mark Harrington and David M. Schwartz

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