Nor’easter Yuletide: The Storm and its Aftermath on Fire Island

Oceanside at Fire Island Pines during the height of the December 18, 2023 nor’easter. Photo by Bob Anderson.

The storm had been predicted. Preparations were made, but still somehow but the severity of the tidal surge took even the most seasoned of Fire Islanders a bit by surprise on Monday, December 18.

The events seemed to unfold like a Shakespearean tragedy on Fire Island. 

Out east there was concern that that a breach, perhaps more than one, had broken through in the vicinity of Smith Point.

In Fire Island Pines, already ravaged by storms last fall, the seasonal residents looked on as news feeds brought images of menacing high-tides signaling that the coastal erosion problems their community has faced in 2023 were about to become even worse.

The flood mitigation project in Ocean Beach disrupted by flood. Photo from Facebook, Village of Ocean Beach Police.

Bayside flooding is an all-too-common occurrence in Ocean Beach, but the murky surge waters several feet deep in the residential district is not. In addition, a major infrastructure project intended to abate flooding in the Incorporated Village appeared to aggravate the storm surge situation as construction barricades floated idly past submerged park benches and a spoiled Christmas display unveiled only two days before.

Meanwhile, further west in Altantique, contractors with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had only started staging for scheduled beach restoration on Fire Island’s west end came to an abrupt halt as visual footage circulated by locals showed heavy equipment on the beach that appeared abandoned.

The episode caught national attention.  Some pundits drew comparison to Superstorm Sandy’s assault on Fire Island just over 11 years ago.

However, accounts gathered in the aftermath tell a much different story. The sun shone brightly the next day, the way it often does after a significant storm on Fire Island. While streets were still a mess, most of the flood water had already drained out.

With the storm surge coming in in the middle of a school day, students were loaded onto school busses as a split-second decision was made for early dismissal. Classes commenced the next day with a delayed start time.

“I had never experienced anything like that before,” said Fire Island School District Superintendent, Travis Davey now into his second year on the job. “The bus drivers knew what to do and everyone stayed calm.”

A sense of calm also prevailed at Fire Island National Seashore.

“We saw the videos but those were not breaches,” said Fire Island National Seashore Interpretation Chief Nick Clemons. “Our inspections the next morning concluded that the eastern portions of Fire Island were experiencing episodes of over-wash and was temporary. We did experience some boardwalk damage at Watch Hill and Barrett Beach, but damage to our resources was fairly minimal. Things of course could have been worse. We are asking all visitors right now to exercise caution. Watch your footing and be aware of your surroundings.”

Bayside flooding of Clam Pond, Village of Saltaire. Photo courtesy of Bruce Kurka.

In the Incorporated Village of Ocean Beach, Mayor James Mallott spoke of “getting back on track.”

“This was some of the worst flooding we have seem since Sandy,” said Mallott. “We have already filled three dumpsters with debris, but the dunes did their job. Right now, Robbins Rest and the Summer Club have much more serious problems on the beach. Our construction crews are already back in full swing and any equipment damaged sustained is nothing to speak of.”

“I would suggest anyone coming to check on their homes wear sensible shoes,” added Mayor Mallott. “Those with low-lying properties should have an electrician check their houses to make sure the wiring is safe. Thank the Lord this storm was not worse.”

It was of course the prudent course of action that the grand holiday light display in downtown Ocean Beach remained disconnected.

Then there was our discussion with USACE. Fire Island beaches have become a prickly subject for them since the fall as tropical storms Lee and Ophelia socked points east as elected officials, Fire Departments, and state government agencies have repeatedly sounded the alarm for relief. So much so, that the recent appearance of their staging equipment seen in points west leaned toward bad optics. However, Public Affairs Specialist James D’Ambrosio was prompt and gracious with answers to our questions.

“No equipment has been damaged; sand placement work will commence on schedule by the end of the month,” replied D’Ambrosio when we inquired about their machinery on the beach during the December 19 nor’easter. He further explained their presence in Altantique:

“Sand placement for the Fire Island to Moriches Inlet Project (FIMI) will commence by the end of the month under the Army Corps’ PL84-99 Emergency Repair contract. Following completion, the contractor will move to Downtown Montauk for additional sand placement under the Fire Island to Montauk Point Project (FIMP).”

Perhaps most encouraging, D’Ambrosio’s emailed statement suggests the appearance that USACE is becoming more responsive to the collective pleas and perhaps this recent nor’easter in part contributed towards this course correction:

A rainbow over troubled waters, bayside Ocean Beach. Photo from Facebook, Village of Ocean Beach Police.

“The Army Corps of Engineers and New York State will execute a Project Partnership Agreement (a legal agreement stating the responsibilities of each entity) that will enable renourishment of all FIMP/FIMI project locations going forward. With funding from both the state and federal government, sand placement will be able to proceed as needed following technical evaluation… we have received reports from New York State and local communities regarding erosion from yesterday’s storm. To that end, the New York District will perform an analysis of yesterday’s coastal storm event to determine if it qualifies as extraordinary, therefore potentially eligible for PL 84-99 assistance. The analysis will be completed in January. We will also perform site inspections of current beach conditions as part of our latest assessment.”

Up until December of 2021, FIMP’s existence was strictly as a study – a study which took generations to complete, but a study none the less. Its promise versus the reality of it are two different things and there is bound to be a learning curve for USACE, Fire Islanders and other stakeholders alike. Future generations are counting on us to manage our coastlines with care and vigilance. If the timing of this recent nor’easter contributed in any small way toward these ambitious goals and partnerships, perhaps it is something of a Christmas gift after all.

Editor’s note: The Incorporated Village of Saltaire did not return our calls for comment.