Sandy-caused breach to be left to close naturally

Oblique aerial photographs of Pelican Island and Fire

Oblique aerial photographs of Pelican Island and Fire Island, New York. The view is looking northwest across Fire Island towards Great South Bay. (Credit: US Coast Guard)

A Sandy-caused breach in a Fire Island National Seashore wilderness area will be allowed to close naturally -- at least initially, officials announced Saturday.

National Seashore superintendent Christopher Soller said the Old Inlet breach, south of Bellport, will be monitored for potential impacts on water levels in surrounding communities.

If that becomes a concern, the cut will be closed immediately, Soller said.

"At the end of the day, the breach will be closed," he said. "The question is whether we let nature take its course or if we do it mechanically."

The decision effectively snubs politicians who had called for immediate action to close the breach.

More than 300 residents from Patchogue, Sayville, Brookhaven hamlet, Bellport, Islip and other communities packed the meeting at Bellport Village Community Center.

They crammed into every corner of the large room, many standing, to listen to four experts discuss the breach.

"I feel you have to work with Mother Nature, not fight it," said one of the speakers, Joseph Gagliano, co-chairman of the Bellport Village Waterfront Commission.

The breach was one of three cut through the dunes along Fire Island's 32-mile coastline during the Oct. 29 storm, allowing ocean water to enter Great South Bay. The Army Corps of Engineers has closed the other breaches -- at Cupsogue County Park and near Smith Point County Park.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone urged the National Park Service to have the Army Corps close the Old Inlet breach right away to protect South Shore communities from additional flooding.

But environmentalists on Saturday argued that leaving the cut open could help circulate water around Great South Bay, improving water quality and shellfishing.

"I think to close the breach immediately is shortsighted thinking," said Kevin McAllister, president of Peconic Baykeeper.

Charlie Flagg, a professor at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said the area usually gets flooded during high westerly winds but isn't facing that problem now because the breach gives water in Bellport Bay an escape route.

"The breach is now a safety valve," he said.

But Peter K. Hutchins, former chief of the Davis Park Fire Department, said getting emergency services to communities on Fire Island will be difficult this winter if the bay isn't passable.

"Leaving the breach open at this time of year is flirting with danger," he said.

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