The Fire Island Fire Chiefs Council is calling on lawmakers to immediately repair beaches damaged by September storms, describing conditions as a “ticking time bomb.”
Beach erosion in communities starting from Seaview, going east through the Pines to Davis Park, is preventing fire departments from traveling along the sand to provide mutual aid, said Joe Geiman, fire chief for the Fire Island Pines.
"I've been in the Pines Fire Department for 20 years and I have never seen it this bad," he said. "I won't permit any of my vehicles to drive on the beach unless it's under emergency conditions."
In a mid-October letter addressed to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and copied to Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) and several Suffolk elected officials, the council, of which Geiman is a member, said a “series of violent storms” during the week of Sept. 29 caused “severe erosion” on eastern beaches, compromising safe passage. Emergency responders on the barrier island, which lacks paved roads, rely on beaches to travel between communities and provide aid.
"Given our unique location, and vulnerability to extreme weather conditions during the winter months," the chiefs' letter said, "a poor or slow response has proven it can be the difference in preventing a major conflagration or adding one. Despite all our best planning our current condition finds us sitting on a potential 'ticking time bomb.' ”
Schumer in a prepared statement Sunday evening said: “The pictures prove the case: Fire Island has been hit hard by storm after storm and in many spots erosion is getting much worse. That is why I first sounded the alarm, asking the Army Corps to conduct emergency repair of dune and beaches. . . . I will continue to push the Corps to make needed repairs ASAP and to utilize the resources I have already secured for their agency to get this job done.”
Geiman said during the summer months, “we rely on other Fire Island departments for mutual aid in case of an emergency, but offseason, like it is now, it’s even more important because our communities are less populated at this time. We have fewer firefighters, we have fewer residents in town and it’s even harder to get up and down the beach."
To circumvent a shortage of first responders and the difficult geography, fire departments across Fire Island work together to provide emergency services to nearly 5,000 homes, according to the letter.
Fire apparatus and support vehicles on Fire Island are equipped to drive on sand and travel between hamlets on the beaches, said Thomas Ruskin, president of the Seaview association.
“Our departments are very interdependent on each other for mutual aid,” Ruskin said. “If there was an emergency east of Ocean Bay Park, you can't get down there except on the beach.”
Geiman said that because Fire Island communities aren’t as populated during the offseason — typically the months between Labor Day and Memorial Day — there are fewer emergency calls; but that time period is also when there tends to be bigger fires, because that’s when many residents work on their houses.
The Army Corps of Engineers is currently working on the federally funded $2.1 billion Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point Project to reduce flood risk along its 83 miles of coastline. The Fire Island Inlet was dredged as part of the project, according to a spokesman for the Army Corps.
This month, the federal agency is inspecting areas from Ocean Bay Park to Davis Park on Fire Island for “any observable deficiencies that needs to be addressed,” an effort “aimed at discerning the present conditions and any forthcoming needs for periodic beach replenishment under the ongoing” Fire Island to Montauk Point Project,” said spokesman James D’Ambrosio.
“The Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Department of the Interior, is committed to mitigating erosion and flooding to all vulnerable areas of Fire Island and will leverage all resources at its disposal to do so,” D’Ambrosio said in a statement.
Requests for aid following the September storms on Fire Island were denied because federal law limits the Army Corps of Engineers to respond to damage caused by Category 3 hurricanes, he said.
“They did an analysis of water levels, waves, and duration and intensity, and those storms, they didn't meet the minimum eligibility requirements,” D’Ambrosio said. “This is taxpayer money, so there's checks and balances on it and this is what we have to work with.”
Geiman, however, maintained that repairing the beaches is “critical.”
“If there's a fire in the offseason, there could be as little as three or four firefighters in town to fight a fire,” he said. “So if you have a windy, stormy day and you get a fire going, and we're all wooden houses connected by wooden boardwalks, eventually everything in the town is going to burn.”