It’s hard to overstate the importance of Fire Island to queer people. Since the 1920s, the barrier island served as a refuge for queer people of all walks of life, attracting countless artists and bohemians over the decades. After the Great Hurricane of 1938, gay people flocked to Cherry Grove at Duffy’s Hotel with the queer literati of the time. Since the erection of the Pines Hotel & Yacht Club in 1953, millions of queer people have flocked to experience the magic and queer euphoria of Fire Island, whether for their first day trip, or to plant their roots permanently. The Island’s Pines and Cherry Grove communities in particular offered a home to a community that was ostracized politically or ravaged by the scourge of HIV/AIDS.
On Fire Island, queer culture and ecology are inextricably linked. The island itself forms the large center of the southern barrier islands that run parallel to Long Island, and starting in the early 1900s, it was reinforced to act as a protective layer—a barrier—for the shorelines and inhabitants of Long Island. Without that protection, many fear, one of the most densely populated coastal regions would be dangerously exposed to a rapidly-warming Atlantic Ocean.
But Fire Island’s beloved beaches, once hallowed ground for visitors and homeowners alike, are all but disappearing. A series of storms—culminating with Tropical Storm Ophelia in September of this year—have wrought havoc, reducing a beach that was once as wide as a football field to one that extends only feet beyond some beachfront residences. Though communities in Fire Island have been largely successful at fending off the beach erosion left in the wake of hurricanes and tropical storms, they are now pushing for emergency relief aid as erosion eats up the remainder of the once-formidable dunes protecting the island from the surf.
The impacts of this erosion are far-reaching. Fire services and EMS are threatened, sewage lines are jeopardized, and traveling between islands is becoming infeasible. Events on the beach like the Pines Party, which draws thousands of people each year, are being postponed, while the tourism industry hangs in the balance. Perhaps most urgently, families risk losing their beloved homes, some of which are designated historical sites.
Historically, Fire Island’s pristine beaches have ebbed and flowed much like the waves that eat away at them. Restoring the beach after a storm was once a community effort, paid for by primary and secondary homeowners through established local tax elections that would cover sand, fencing, and other barriers to future ocean erosion. In 2014, however, the communities of Fire Island signed over control of beach replenishment efforts to the federal government under the Fire Island to Moriches Inlet Stabilization project (FIMI). Support for FIMI was initially ubiquitous, and it was understood that the federal government would have an obligation to maintain and repair the beaches as needed. Public Law 84-99 acknowledges the US Army Corps of Engineers’ basic authority to provide for emergency activities in support of State and Local governments prior to, during, and after a flood event.
While homeowners, emergency medical personnel, and workers employed on Fire Island had largely hoped that this system would secure long term efforts to repair the beach, requests for repair have been hamstrung by significant delays and repeated rejections at the federal level. This is largely because PL 84-99 determines the need for relief based on the severity of a storm rather than the current state of the beach, a criteria many Fire Island residents view as arbitrary and inapplicable.
Now, locals and homeowners on the island find themselves in an impossible bind: They’re at the whim of archaic rules for government assistance and at the mercy of a warming ocean that’s causing storms of increasing intensity and frequency. To make matters worse, the FIMI protocol bars residents from taking it upon themselves to repair their own beaches in certain capacities without federal approval.
Angelo DeSanto and Bob Tortora have lived on the beach in Fire Island Pines for 14 years, and have been coming to Fire Island for much longer. As active members of Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association (FIPPOA) and fixtures of the community, they’re keenly aware of the importance of securing sand and fencing before and after storm season. While they’re still hopeful the beach will be repaired, the Army Corps of Engineers is significantly behind on the job: A request for sand placed by Montauk and Western Fire Island after Hurricane Sandy in 2019 is just now being fulfilled. Some 50,000 residents in center Fire Island communities will have to wait, a reality that’s setting in for Bob and Angelo. “We’ll have to watch this barge float right by us,” as the surf creeps closer to their home, they told VICE News.
Community efforts have galvanized Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand, and two Gillibrand staffers were on Fire Island last month to tour the severely eroded beaches. After that visit, Gillibrand urged Army Corps Lt. Alan Spellmon to consider the devastation. Schumer, similarly impassioned, wrote a letter to the feds.
“Local officials, Suffolk County, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have done what they could… [US Army Corps of Engineers] assistance is critical to protecting them from future storm events.”
It’s easy to write off an issue like beach erosion in a wealthy island enclave, and many did just that when The New York Times covered it, claiming that this was merely a matter of privileged homeowners who’ve built on a barrier island trying to protect their investments. But erosion and flooding aren’t the only consequences of damage to Fire Island’s coastline, or the thousands of people who live or visit there every year.
VICE News spoke to Fire Island Fire Marshall Joe Geiman, who explained that the many communities of Fire Island rely on a system of mutual aid, whereby one community has emergency and fire services at the ready for another. In the case of fire, being able to get from one community to another is paramount. And “the Pines is like one giant wick,” he said, referring to the network of walkways and roads that join the homes there. “If one house goes down, there’s the risk of a domino effect.” The Pines is no stranger to devastating fires; its iconic dance hall The Pavilion burned down in 2011. There’s no way to get a fire truck around the beach walkways, which now extend into the water at high tide, preventing services from a community like the Pines to a neighboring one like Cherry Grove. Their last resort is relying on services from the mainland, which may take too long to prevent a calamity.
This has left many young homeowners like Joey Goldman, who purchased his primary residence in the Pines just three months ago, wondering what other alternatives they have. “The narrative [of this being an inevitable result of climate change] doesn’t tell the full story… we’re being treated like a lost cause when there are other solutions available.” One such solution, he continues, could lie in alternative sea barriers like jetties, one of which was erected to break the surf in Fire Island in 1971.
For now, communities in Fire Island will have to wait; based on the current round of FIMI restoration, it could be years before they get their beaches replenished. It’s unclear what measures they’re permitted to take to protect their beaches independently, yet communities are weighing several options while they wait for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fulfill their request, which it denied for a third time just last week. Homeowners may place sandbags around their homes as a last resort, though that will be no match for Fire Island’s winter season, which in recent years has been uncharacteristically warm and rainy.
This is, of course, far from the first time the queer community’s way of life finds itself in the hands of a bureaucratically stunted federal government. The zeal of its residents to stop at nothing to protect their home is itself a cause for cautious optimism; yet, the future of Fire Island as we know it hangs in the balance.
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The post Climate Change Is Threatening Fire Island’s Beaches—and its Queer History appeared first on VICE.