Still, residents are counting their blessings.
That's because more than 4,000 structures survived, at least enough to be repaired. And some are crediting the carefully maintained wall of dunes, ranging from 10 to 20 feet tall, with taking the brunt of the storm's fury.
"The dunes were demolished, but without their protection it would have been much worse," said Malcolm Bowman, a professor of physical oceanography at Stony Brook University.
Evidence of the hit the dunes absorbed is everywhere. A half-mile from the ocean, a blizzard of sand covers bicycles up to the handlebars. Wooden pilings are all that remain of stairs and walkways that passed over dunes and led down to the beach. A football-field-size network of concrete blocks that once sat under 6 feet of sand lay bare in the autumn sunshine. Houses on stilts that once peeked over sand berms now sit naked to the surf.
New Yorkers know Fire Island as their own private paradise, a close-to-home getaway that's accessible only by ferry and feels like a different country. The strip of beaches five miles off the south shore of Long Island is three-fourths undeveloped and includes a national wilderness area.
It has just 300 permanent residents, but on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the population is swelled by 75,000 visitors who rent homes ranging in size from multilevel palaces to rustic bungalows. A couple of communities are favorite destinations of gay and lesbian visitors. Cars are banned in the summertime; denizens get around on bikes and boardwalks and tote their gear in red toy wagons.
Because of its remoteness, officials have only begun in the past week or so to allow the residents, and the others who own vacation homes and businesses, to return and assess the damage.
Retired electrical contractor Hyman Portnoy, whose two-story oceanfront home in the village of Ocean Beach suffered damage to its large deck, said rebuilding the dunes is a major concern.