Fire Island strives to balance its coastal fragility with flood of tourists

FIRE ISLAND (WABC) -- Boarding the Fire Island Ferry for the half hour ride here, it's easy to see why people have long been drawn to this pristine shoreline in Suffolk County.

But make no mistake, the sounds and sights of today's Fire Island reflect changes in this landscape, and very noticeable ones.

"Sooner or later, everything here is gonna be flood height," said Jim Mallott, the mayor of Ocean Beach, underscoring one of the biggest changes in this Long Island community: adapting to flood risk.



Historically vulnerable to hurricanes and storms, Fire Island was devastated in particular by Superstorm Sandy.

FEMA regulations that followed that storm mandate that homes be lifted, in some cases as high as 18 feet near the water.

On an island known for its quaint walkways without cars, with charming spots like Bungalow Walk, it's getting harder and harder to spot those bungalows at street level.

"We can't have our own little kingdom here and decide what looks better. This is a matter of insurance," Mallott said.

Indeed, some argue that change is a good thing. During the pandemic, demand for newer homes only increased.

There are sweeping staircases now and beautiful amenities in these luxury homes.

A rental home Eyewitness News visited is listed for $12,000 a week, but it can sleep a couple of families. A scaled-down version will rent for half that this summer.

This modernization is certainly good for the real estate business, but is it good for Fire Island?

The community only has about 400 full-time residents. But in the summer season, that number explodes to about 20,000, and the look of the beautiful beach certainly explains why.

And so the key is balancing Fire Island's fragility with its flood of tourists.

"All houses will eventually be lifted. It's what goes on in the big houses, I think that's more of a problem," said Annie Niland, a resident of Fire Island.

Ultimately, observers say, the goal is preserving Fire Island's rich history of diversity and acceptance at a time when this small island continues to evolve in big ways.

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