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Fire Island celebrates tourism, Sandy recovery

Beachgoers enjoy the Fourth of July holiday on

Beachgoers enjoy the Fourth of July holiday on Fire Island. (July 4, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Fire Island business owners, who look to Independence Day as a kick-start to the summer tourist season, had plenty to celebrate Thursday.

Island businesses saw nearly as much holiday traffic this year as last, store owners said, as the summer population returns and the tiny resort finishes rebuilding after superstorm Sandy's devastation.

On Monday, Brookhaven town officials held a news conference publicizing the reopening of local establishments damaged by the storm. And in the past two days, Fire Island's population has quadrupled, said Lisa Nelson, a Manhattanite renting a property in Seaview since early June.

"When we came [in June], there was just frantic building," Nelson said as she basked in Thursday's sun with her sons, Eli, 8, and Teddy, 10, and their cockapoo, Tucker. "But it felt like [businesses] were confident they were going to put it together, so we were confident."

With the exception of Bayshore Cafe, all stores along the main drag in Ocean Beach, Fire Island's commercial center, have repaired their flood damage and reopened their doors.

The road to recovery wasn't cheap: Damage to Ron Smith's clothing boutique, A Summer Place, including ruined floors, display cabinets and merchandise amounting to as much as $90,000, Smith said.

The upside of storm damage, Palms Hotel general manager Laura Mercogliano said, is "it's given businesses who haven't upgraded in many years an opportunity to do so." Long Islanders are curious to see how the "face of Fire Island" has changed, she said.

Restored businesses reported slow sales for June, but both owners and loyal customers attribute this to rainy weather.

"It's more about the weather than the storm, because I feel that everybody in the commercial district certainly worked all winter to get back and open," Smith said.

With temperatures in the 80s and sunny skies, July Fourth couldn't have showcased a recovered Fire Island any better, said Mermaid Market manager Michael Gerace. "The weather's really cooperating," he said, watching a steady flow of lunchtime customers at the sandwich counter.

On the west side of the community, Maguire's Bayfront Restaurant served an average lunch crowd, owner Jim Betz said. Nearby, the Castaway Bar and Grill was full of faces that owner Jon Randazzo didn't recognize. Many visitors this holiday were day trippers, not returning island renters and homeowners, Randazzo noted.

"There are a lot of homes that are not back in action, but this gives us hope for the rest of the season," said Randazzo, who owns four other eateries in Ocean Beach and who chaired Revive FI, a group created to inform seasonal tourists that Fire Island businesses would be open as usual this summer.

"It's been rough, but I try not to let it affect the spirit," said the West Islip native.

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