Freeport, Long Island
On Saturday I went to Freeport, Long Island, a waterfront town just north of Long Beach that was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. You can see the impact here—there are boats in yards and greasemarks marking the floodline five feet high on canalside buildings—but the damage doesn’t, on first glance, compare with that in areas like the Rockaways, Atlantic City, or Long Beach, where cars and houses are buried in sand, the National Guard stands watch from Humvees, and FEMA officers walk around, knocking on doors and conducting household health and wellness checks. In the parking lot of a fishing tackle wholesale store I met Steve Townsend, 62, a Long Island native, lifelong fisherman, and Freeport resident who had agreed to show me around. We went for a walk down Woodcleft Avenue, a stretch of marinas and bars and docking stations, to see his friend Richie, who owns a boat fueling station.
Outside: I heard some of the substations got flooded on the South Shore.
Townsend: We aren’t part of that grid. Freeport generates its own electricity. I mean, we’re on the grid, but we generate our own. But everything got flooded and everything went out. They want to make sure there’s no fires when they turn everything back on.
Your friend owns the bait shop?
No, he’s a wholesale distributor, a fishing tackle distributor. Across the street he has a gift shop. They’re going to take a big loss. Then of course you also have looting at night.
Has that been going on here?
Two days ago I heard the police arrested 15 people. The next night the guy at the end of the block, where we’re going, they broke in and stole money and jewelry. We’ve had patrols here from police and the National Guard. But they can’t be everywhere. Who knows when this is all gonna be put back? It could take months.
What do you do for your profession?
That’s a good profession.
I like it. I used to be with the IRS. There’s a business down here called the Schooner, it’s a restaurant. They’ve been going for years and years. Decades. Who knows if they’ll be coming back? We can see how bad it is when we get down there.
So FEMA hasn’t been going around knocking on doors?
I haven’t seen them. I think they have an office setup somewhere.
Have you been down to Long Beach?
No, I haven’t been down there.
All the dunes are blasted out, blasted into the roads.
That’s what happens down there. Even with storms not as big as this one. Years and years ago they had berms. They removed those because they wanted to improve the real estate, so you could see the ocean. And then after the first few storms they said, ‘No we need the berms back.’
How are spirits in town?
The first day was really down, you know, when people saw the damage. Even the second day. Once people started to clean up they picked up a little bit.
I was driving around Wednesday and there was still standing water around houses in Lindenhurst. It was grim.
Wednesday, this street was dry, but the side streets, they were all blocked with water.
You fish a lot?
Fly or spin fishing?
Mostly I’m fly fishing now. When I lived in Long Beach I would go every day. Had my own boat. I needed it then.
Do you go for stripers mostly?
Stripers, false albacore, bluefish. Around here, if we don’t fly fish, we’ll just troll. [Townsend points to a half burned down building.] I guess they had a short here, I heard. And the wind was howling so much, I think maybe it went that way and started this fire. This building, part of it burned. And this building, here the Tropix, see that? [Townsend points to a completely burned down building. Out front there’s a sign that says WE WILL BE BACK. C U SOON.] The firefighters were trying, but they were underwater. They couldn’t fight the fire. They did what they could.
This was Monday night?
Monday night, Tuesday, they had to come back Wednesday. This was a big bar. If you walk around, you’ll see there’s another building, that building—and that was just built this year. The firefighters were in water. They got here one time and the water kept coming up because the tide was rising and they had to leave. It was still going.
Were you watching this?
I can’t see it from my house but I smelled the smoke. I thought we had a fire in the house. I was trying to wake everybody up. I knocked on the door of the guy in front of me. He said, ‘No, that’s this place down here.’ I could see it from his room. It had been burning.
How many people live here, this area?
This block, only a handful. This is basically a party block. [We reach The Schooner.]
This was an older restaurant?
They’ve been around probably ... older than I am.
I haven’t been in there in 20 years. At one time it was the place.
Why’d you move here from Long Beach?
Well I wanted to get out of Long Beach. They’d sold the marina to develop housing. So the marina sold out, and I had to move the boat. So I went up to Oceanside, I was there for three or four years. And they sold that property to build housing. I was looking around for a spot. A friend said they had a spot for a boat down here. I showed up and met the landlord and he said he owned the apartment. So the same day I got the boat and the apartment. It was terrific. I could walk downstairs and in five minutes be out on the water.
Was your boat alright?
I sold my boat last year, but it was alright. It’s fine. nothing happened to it. [We reach the end of the block, where the tidal surge has knocked over some fueling stations at a gas dock. Richie Rosenkranz, the owner of the dock, is standing outside. He’s got neat silver hair, a thickset build, and a slow gait.]
Townsend: This is Richie. This is Abe from Outside magazine, he’s writing a story about the storm, so I’m showing him around the block. [Richie laughs for a long time.]
Rosenkranz: How are you?
Townsend: Richie owns the gas dock here.
Rosenkranz: Richie R-o-s-e-n-k-r-a-n-z. Woodcleft fishing station.
What happened with the gas?
Rosenkranz: It’s easy to show you. The freezer moved from here. It was full, it moved 30 feet away. The docks themselves busted loose because of the water. There was another pump here that went down. We salvaged that. This pump here got knocked over, and the entire bulkhead. The ramp went from this bulkhead here to the boat and back. That was in the water, we just got that lifted out today. I live upstairs.
Did you stay upstairs?
I didn’t stay for this one. I stayed for the last one. I figured out this was going to be a lot worse. I went to my daughter’s house in Sayville. They lost electric but they had a generator.
When do you think you’ll be back up and running?
This is going to take until the spring. I’m closed January, February, March. I had it scheduled to put an entire new tank system in. So now that half of it is dug up, they’re going to start working on it. I should be open April first.
Was there a fuel spill?
No, not here. These pumps have a knockover or shutoff valve. So you wouldn’t have any spill other than a little bit dripping out of the hoses, unless you had it on. Obviously I wasn’t pumping fuel. The big spills you see are from boats going under or from above ground home heating tanks.
We were over in Lindenhurst and you could smell it.
Yeah, if you go down on Hudson Avenue, they say it smells like crazy over there. Irene had the same thing—a couple people had the 275s go under. That’s a lot of fuel. Fuel spreads. All you need is one with a south wind and it’s gonna spread down this whole canal. My grandmother once told me, Don’t worry about nothing you don’t have no control over. If it comes, it comes.
Townsend: It used to be okay. Our storms since the '60s haven’t been bad.
Rosenkranz: The last one, Irene, that’s the first one in 33 years that had water in this place. Four inches. Now it’s four feet. [Richie points to a watermark in the store, and we walk out.] Nice to meet you. Good luck, come back in April. [Steve and I walk back up the block.]
How often do you fish now?
Townsend: Probably 25, 30 days a year. I’m supposed to be coming back from the Bahamas now. Bonefish. We got this nice little island that I ain’t gonna tell you about.
Do you have a family?
My sister lives in California. All my cousins and stuff like that moved off Long Island 30 years ago.
You ever see storms like this?
In the '50s and early '60s, oh yeah. But I don’t remember the flooding like this. This road used to get flooded so badly, probably 10 or 12 years ago they raised this road three feet, and the businesses that wanted to stay had house movers raise them up three feet. And still, you got five, six feet of water.
For stripers do you use floating line, 350 grain, what?
Depends. On the top we use a sink tip around here. In the bay an eight weight, in the ocean a 10 weight. But if they’re underneath sometimes we’ll use 350s. Fishing this fall hasn’t been that good. We had one real blitz with a lot of big fish, probably in mid-October out at Montauk. Every fish was huge. But it died down. We had some albies, too, but not like in years past. The albies were persnickity this year. Very persnickity.
Did you hear Bloomberg endorsing Obama because of the storm and climate change?
I didn’t hear that. It’s good to hear some politician recognizing the facts of life. Considering that everything below 34th Street got flooded, the city’s gonna need help. I think it’s only going to get worse. I think most people believe in global warming now. A lot of people had predicted things like this for 20, 30 years. I remember as a kid, a debate about whether they should allow building below Sunrise Highway. And there was too much money in it not too. So it took about 40 years. But I don’t think they’ll forget now. This truck over here, this red one, it’s been parked here the whole time. That thing was underwater. [We pass a bar advertising a hurricane relief party with a sign that reads SUCK IT SANDY. A generator hums.] Where are you parked?
Just above that boat in the middle of the road.
Yeah, we don’t know where that one came from. Obviously it floated here from somewhere else, but we don’t know where. Wanna buy a boat cheap?