Forman and her children on Fire Island, summer 2012.
Lauren Forman grew up spending summers on Fire Island, a 30-mile-long strip of land off the coast of Long Island, New York. After Hurricane Sandy hit, damaging an estimated 80% of Fire Island homes, she says, “I knew the community was initially going to be paralyzed.” And while the island, which was evacuated prior to the storm, does have about 200 year-round families, it also has a large population of summer residents and renters who might not have the most up-to-date information on its troubles: “There are so many people that care about Fire Island that wouldn’t know how to help.” Now, with the help of Forman’s fast-growing online campaign, they do.
Forman found Causes, an online platform that lets users post petitions and fund-raising campaigns and form communities around issues they care about. She immediately thought of Fire Island’s all-volunteer Ocean Beach Fire Department: “It’s the fire department that really is out there; they’re the first responders. And they needed our money now.”
She launched a fundraising campaign for the department on Causes on November 7, and it raised $11,000 in less than a week. It was the largest single fund-raising campaign this year at Causes, which has around 600,000 active petitions and campaigns right now. “I knew we would be able to pull people together,” says Forman, “but I didn’t have in my wildest dreams an idea of how quickly and how much we would be able to accomplish.”
The Ocean Beach Fire Department is now helping restore power to damaged homes and respond to fire alarms caused by things like downed power lines. One house in Fire Island did burn down after the storm, says assistant fire chief Ian Levine. Donations will help prevent future fires and replace damaged power tools, portable lighting, and golf carts (which the department uses for transportation since the island has few cars).
Next Forman turned her attention to the future of Fire Island. It’s not just a beach community — it’s also a barrier island, protecting communities on Long Island from flooding and destruction. “It exists to take a hit for Long Island,” says Forman, and during Hurricane Sandy, it took a big hit. Its sand dunes are a major line of defense against surging waves, and many were destroyed by the storm. Without dunes, Fire Island can’t protect itself or Long Island from future storms.
So she posted, again on Causes, a petition (initially circulated at a local homeowners’ meeting) to allow the removal of sand from a local waterway for swift rebuilding of the dunes. That petition got 100 signatures an hour after Forman first posted it; after just four days, it had nearly 8,000 signatures.
A Fire Island house badly damaged by the hurricane.
Causes community manager Alejandro de la Cruz says petitions on the site tend to do best on the site “when they’re really focused, when [they] have a specific target in mind and they can actually articulate their offline impact.” Foreman’s campaigns did all of those, which may have been part of their runaway success.
Of course, the damage wreaked by the hurricane may be inspiring people to give. Foreman’s family were recently allowed to return to the island — their home was safe, but many others were destroyed. “It looks like a bomb went off,” Foreman says. “The beachfront houses got hit hardest,” she adds. “The waves just came right into their homes.” And in the wake of the fire that devastated Breezy Point, New York, the work of fire departments post-disaster is more visible than ever.
Firefighters and ordinary residents alike hope for a quick rebuilding of the dunes. Says Forman of Fire Island: “It’s a little gem on the East Coast, but it also has a very important job. And it’s prepared to do its job, but we need help.”