Post Hurricane Sandy Breaches
The Wilderness Breach
Breaches are channels connecting ocean to bay which form during powerful storms. These natural barrier island features can come and go over time. On October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy created a breach within the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, a federally-designated wilderness area on the eastern end of Fire Island National Seashore.
Allowing breaches to function naturally has benefits to barrier island systems. These include sand movement into the bay facilitating salt marsh development, widening the barrier island, increasing resiliency for future storms, and providing spawning grounds and habitat for marine species.
While storm events and breaches are part of a barrier island's natural processes, allowing the wilderness breach to remain open carries the risk of potential adverse impacts to mainland development from flooding, loss of life, and other economic and physical damage. An open breach can also affect sediment budgets along downdrift parts of the ocean coast and changes in circulation in the bay. And finally, the breach has divided the Seashore into two islands, which has altered park operations, visitor experience, and emergency access.
The National Park Service (NPS) is in the process of making a decision to determine whether or not to close the breach. The National Park Service will release for public review a Draft Fire Island Wilderness Breach Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (Draft breach Plan/EIS) to evaluate alternatives for managing the wilderness breach. The desired outcome of the plan is to ensure the continued integrity of the natural and cultural features at Fire Island National Seashore and the Great South Bay, while protecting human life and managing the risk of economic and physical damage to the surrounding ecosystems. Please find updates at the link below.
Breach Management Plan/EIS
Documents Open for Public Review
Other Plans and Projects
An archive of completed projects as well as projects without documents open for comment may be found on the PEPC website.
What Is Federal Wilderness and How Is It Managed?
Federal wilderness areas are wild, undeveloped, federal lands that have been designated and protected by Congress. The Fire Island Wilderness is the only federally designated wilderness in New York State. Federal wilderness areas are to be managed "to preserve natural conditions" and to be "untrammeled by man, where man himself is visitor who does not remain." Management of the Fire Island Wilderness must comply with the Wilderness Act (Public Law 88-577), the 980 legislation that established the Fire Island Wilderness (Public Law 96-585), the 1983 Wilderness Management Plan, and the anticipated 2016 Fire Island National Seashore Wilderness Stewardship Plan and Backcountry Camping Policy. None of these management directives preclude closing a breach in the wilderness[ER1]
Monitoring the Wilderness Breach
Since the occurrence of the wilderness breach, the National Park Service has worked with its partners to monitor the breach, and it has been a relatively stable but dynamic natural feature. Since opening, the breach has expanded through migration of the west shoreline. As of May 2016, the wilderness breach on the northern shoreline was 1,476 ft (450 m), and the width of the southern shoreline of the breach was 2,345 ft (716 m). Analysis of Great South Bay water level data indicates that the height of high tide has not changed significantly since before Hurricane Sandy. Analysis has also shown that the tidal phase (timing of high tide) in the vicinity of the wilderness breach has shifted approximately 20 minutes.
A Powerful Storm
The force of the wind and storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy on Monday, October 29, 2012, caused numerous overwashes and resulted in three breaches (where water freely flows between the ocean and the bay) on barrier islands along the south shore of Long Island. Two of those three breaches were on Fire Island and within the boundaries of Fire Island National Seashore: one at Old Inlet (within the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness) and another in Smith Point County Park.
Within 48 hours of the storm the Breach Contingency Plan (BCP), put in place in 1997 to address any breaches that impact coastal Long Island from Fire Island Inlet east to Montauk Point, was implemented by a multi-agency group including the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
TheBCP calls for filling breaches which do not occur in the federally designated wilderness area. For the breach at Smith Point County Park, which is within Fire Island National Seashore boundaries but is not within the wilderness area, BCP actions were implemented immediately to close the breach by mechanical means. Closure was completed in November 2012.
Breach Contingency Plan and Breach Management
The National Park Service is one of several agencies involved in an interagency breach management response for the south shore of Long Island, as part of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study. After Hurricane Sandy's arrival, the 1997 Breach Contingency Plan for Fire Island was implemented.
For a breach within Fire Island National Seashore's wilderness area, the BCP calls for the NPS to monitor and evaluate the breach for a period of 45 to 60 days to determine if the breach will close naturally. That initial monitoring period passed at the end of December 2012. Since the breach was relatively stable, the BCP team decided to continue monitoring at that time.
Fire Island National Seashore's enabling legislation (Public Law 88-587, September 11, 1964) allows for shore erosion control or beach protection measures within park boundaries, under certain criteria. (See Sec 8)
The Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness Act (Public Law 96-585, December 23, 1980) designated approximately 1,363 acres as wilderness in Fire Island National Seashore. This wilderness designation does not preclude the repair of breaches that occur in the wilderness, under specific circumstances. See (d)
A 1983 Wilderness Management Plan (WMP) for Fire Island National Seashore also addresses breaches in the wilderness area. (See page 18 of the WMP.)