One special visitor's planned arrival to Fire Island is creating a pressing deadline for the cleanup of tons of rotting wood, sheet rock, old refrigerators and other Superstorm Sandy debris from the popular vacation destination east of New York City.
Contractor crews are scrambling to get the trash removed by the end of March, before truck access is severely restricted to protect the nesting areas of the endangered bird species known as the piping plover.
"The deadline has everyone's attention," said Suzy Goldhirsch, president of the Fire Island Association, which represents businesses and homeowners on the 32-mile-long barrier island south of Long Island.
She said most homeowners do not begrudge laws protecting the plover, a compact, pale shorebird with coloring that makes it all but vanish against the open sand flats where it nests.
But if officials can't get the cleanup done by the deadline, they will have to haul away the estimated 82,500 cubic yards of trash by barge, which will be much more expensive and take longer.
That could push the cleanup closer to the Memorial Day-to-Labor Day tourist season, when the population of Fire Island swells from 300 to 75,000.
Access to the beachfront by vehicle will be banned until after September, according to environmentalists.
Adding to the urgency has been the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' difficulty in finding a contractor. It has already been forced to eliminate two companies that had been chosen for the work because of questions over their eligibility.
A third company has been identified to perform the work and could start hauling away trash this weekend, said Marilyn Phillips, an Army Corps spokeswoman. She said the new contractor, Knoxville, Tenn.-based Phillips & Jordan Inc., will be required to hire half of its workforce to perform the debris removal locally and must have the debris gone by the March 31 deadline.
The exact cost for the debris removal contract has not been determined, but two previous companies chosen to perform the task estimated it between $8.8 million and $10.5 million.
She said before any federal contractor could begin the debris removal, 1,700 property owners had to sign release forms allowing government workers onto their property. An estimated 200 homes on the island were destroyed, and although many others suffered damage from flooding, many structures were protected by massive sand dunes that had been constructed along the oceanfront.
The piping plover is protected in many Atlantic Coast states, but the issue on Fire Island is particularly acute in the aftermath of Sandy.
Sean Mahar, director of government relations for Audubon New York, said environmentalists have seen increases in the plover population since protection laws were instituted in the mid-1980s. He said New York and Long Island currently have 800, or 10 percent, of the total global population of piping plovers.
"They are really hard to see on the beach," Mahar said. "That's one of the reasons why they need protection. If you allowed vehicles on the beaches while they are nesting, people would not be able to see them and would run them over."