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Many South Shore bay houses yet to make comeback

The Mullers have struggled to rebuild their bay

The Mullers have struggled to rebuild their bay house, pictured, because they are not currently eligible for federal grant money or insurance payouts. (Oct. 3, 2013) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

A year after superstorm Sandy destroyed more than half of the roughly 35 shacks known as bay houses that dot South Shore marshes from Lawrence to Seaford, some of the owners have yet to return.

Many who faced flooded homes and businesses on the mainland have months of work on the bay ahead, with expenses reaching the tens of thousands of dollars before their bay houses will be usable.

Baymen who harvested the surrounding waters built many of the houses as overnight outposts or storage depots more than a century ago, using borrowed materials and improvised techniques that give the houses a distinctive style.

Few of their descendants make a living off the bay, but they and some newcomers still use the houses for hunting and fishing.

Owners must bear the repair costs, since the houses are not eligible for most insurance or federal grants. And though some houses are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, a $12 million grant program for Sandy-damaged historic preservation projects in New York State will only cover properties owned by municipalities and nonprofits.

"People out here are all committed," said Ryan Stenzel, a butcher from Freeport. "But not everyone's in a position where they can do the work, financially, agewise, healthwise. They're so decimated, they don't really have the time anymore for this."

Hempstead Town, which owns the land many of the houses occupy, has given owners a year to make the houses weathertight and three years to complete repairs, stressing both historic preservation and storm-hardening.

For sisters Laura and Alison Muller, progress has been slowed by tides, access to supplies and family responsibilities on the mainland. They've put up a frame but not yet doors, windows or siding.

Rob Weltner, a retired electrician from Freeport, said the house his family had shared with a few others since 1993 floated off its foundation and broke to pieces during Sandy.

He estimated repairs will cost about $20,000. Borrowing or scavenging timber and pooling labor -- a bay house tradition he likened to an "Amish barn-raising" -- could save some money, but the remoteness of most bay houses -- accessible only by a 20- or 30-minute boat ride -- adds to the cost and complexity of the work. "We still have to look at finances," Weltner said. "It's not like we can hire a crew and trucks -- everything you do you have to carry out on boat."

Folklorist Nancy Solomon, who wrote a book on the bay houses, "On the Bay," and directs Long Island Traditions, a group preserving the region's maritime and farming cultures, said the shacks were among the last "active cultural sites that truly reflect the maritime traditions of Long Island."

Weltner and his friends had their own tradition, which they hope to renew. "We always had a bay house Thanksgiving," he said. "All the families, friends, kids -- we'd hike, look at different birds, kind of enjoy the nature out there. It was great."


Relics of the past


Hundreds of houses once perched on marshland in the bays off the South Shore, many on land owned by the Town of Hempstead.

Laws passed in the 1960s mandated their eventual demolition, but in 2003 the town offered 20-year leases to homeowners and their caretakers.

Roughly 35 stood before superstorm Sandy; roughly 14 remain, though some are likely to be rebuilt.

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