These are the next 4 proposed areas to receive a buyout from the State, as submitted by their respective community leaders, and assisted by Joseph Tirone Jr. These areas all have petitioned the State as a result of a history of serious flooding and were all hit particularly hard by Sandy. Each community has presented their case in an organized fashion, with community members united in their cause for a State buyout. The properties in each neighborhood are contiguous, and returning them to nature would create a natural barrier from future storm surges, as required by the Governor’s enhanced buyout program:
As demolitions begin, Staten Islanders still grappling with reality of returning land to nature By Genevieve Belmaker, Epoch Times | January 20, 2014 Last Updated: January 21, 2014 4:29 pm NEW YORK—Under gray skies last Thursday morning in Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach, the fifth home in this neighborhood to be demolished under the state’s buyout program gave way …View full post
By Jane Gray and Genevieve Belmaker, Epoch Times A part of a house that floated off its foundation when Superstorm Sandy hit sits in the middle of a coastal estuary in the Oakwood Beach area of Staten Island, New York, in November 2012. (Paul J. Richards/Getty Images) NEW YORK—Staten Islanders are among the beneficiaries …View full post
By: Aaron Dickens 12/02/2013 01:28 PM NY1 VIDEO:A second house in Oakwood Beach has been demolished after a state buyout of the neighborhood that was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. State officials say there will be many more in the coming weeks. NY1′s Aaron Dickens filed a report. See the video here: http://www.ny1.com/content/pages/199640/second-house-in-oakwood-beach-demolished-after-sandy-buyoutView full post
State tears down second house in Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach under buyout program (with photos/video)
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — “It’s coming down like it’s a little doll house,” said Joe Tirone Wednesday morning of the rental property he owned at 87 Fox Beach Ave. in Oakwood Beach. The home, a one-bed beach bungalow built in 1940, was torn down by a backhoe that appeared bigger than the house itself. Its …View full post
September 9, 2013
ALBANY, N.Y. — The Fox Beach community of Staten island sits only a few blocks from the ocean on wetlands where tall reeds sprout across the landscape.
After the lives of three of its residents were lost during Hurricane Sandy and flooding destroyed a number of the small bungalows that make up the community, more than a few people who live in Fox Beach were ready to abandon the previously idyllic area.
A few days after the storm, a large group of local homeowners began meeting in the St. Charles School auditorium to discuss how to move forward and, when the prospect of government buyouts was brought up, the room was casually polled.
“Every person in that auditorium raised their hands,” said Joseph Tirone, who owns a home in Fox Beach and is the head of the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee. He said the homeowners pressed officials for weeks, and eventually caught the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo announced on Feb. 25 that the Fox Beach community, which is a subsection of the larger Oakwood neighborhood, would be the testing ground of his general buyout program designed to return parts of the seashore to a natural state to create a storm buffer.
“There are some places that Mother Nature owns,” Cuomo told the audience at the College of Staten Island. “She may only come to visit every two years or three years or four years. But when she comes to visit, she reclaims the site.”
Weeks later, the buyout program is coming into focus for the Fox Beach community, but what will happen with the rest of storm-ravaged New York is still hazy. For months, homeowners have heard sometimes conflicting reports about the city’s plans, the state’s plans, as well as programs offered through the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
Lawmakers and community members say they have been told that the state under Cuomo will be unveiling a number of “enhanced areas” in the next few weeks where homeowners will be able to apply for a buyout worth 100 percent of their homes pre-storm value, with a five percent incentive if they move within their borough. The Cuomo administration has yet to confirm.
The state has allocated $171 million for buyouts, but officials estimate they could ultimately spend $400 million. Officials estimate 10,000 homes were severely damaged during Hurricane Sandy but expect only 10 to 15 percent of owners will take buyouts.
Meanwhile, the Bloomberg administration is not billing its efforts as a “buyout” program and will refer those looking for buyouts to the state.
Instead, the Bloomberg administration has also proposed a program that, if approved by U.S. Housing and Urban Development, will allow the city to buy damaged property at post-Sandy rates for redevelopment. The city’s program would appeal to property owners who aren’t part of the “enhanced areas” that would be covered under the state.
City officials say the properties would first be offered to homeowners who are staying and might want a larger yard, or to add to their property. It is unclear exactly how much the city plans to spend on this program.
Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro says his office has received 400 inquiries about home buyouts but is unsure how the programs offered by the city and state will help.
“Almost every block is a different story, every home has a different problem,” Molinaro said. “Some of these people are already underwater on their mortgage.”
Molinaro said it is unclear how those homeowners would benefit from a buyout if the money they get from the city or state does not cover their mortgage and they are left without a home.
He noted, however, that some banks in New Jersey have been working with homeowners to come to mutually beneficial solutions.
“I wouldn’t say there is an easy answer, but it is a problem we are aggressively addressing,” Tirone said. He said he expects banks to work with homeowners who are underwater on their loans and who want to take a buyout.
The press and local officials have underestimated the desire for buyouts, he said. “Elected officials are opposed to buyouts because they can’t visualize unbuilding,” said Trione, who feels city lawmakers have failed to do enough to ensure local homeowners are briefed on all their options.
Tirone recalls the story of a retiree who had tapped out his life savings to make repairs to his house following Sandy. “If he had been made aware that he could get the pre-storm price for his house and buy a new house that is not in a storm zone, he could have been set for life with his savings still intact,” Tirone said.
Molinaro is skeptical of the process so far, saying, “I have not seen any movement yet. The governor said he would buy homes at 100 percent of their value pre-Sandy but I have not seen any purchased yet.”
He emphasized that he has advocated for prioritizing buyouts to homeowners who have completely lost property and who have no mortgage so that they can quickly purchase a new home. Molinaro said he had warned residents that the buyout process can take years.
Randy Douglas, Town Supervisor of Jay, N.Y., knows firsthand that the government buyout process is anything but quick.
The Town of Jay suffered flooding in 1996 and 2008 from the AuSable River; then, in 2011, Hurricane Irene hit and the flooding was worse than ever. Roads, parks, youth facilities and sewer systems were wiped out along with homes. The town nearly lost its iconic covered bridge.
Some residents had simply had enough. Eighty homeowners out of the town’s estimated 2,500 residents were interested in a buyout program — one that paid 75 percent of pre-storm value.
Eighteen months later, residents are just now signing contracts with FEMA for the purchase of their properties. And the number of interested homeowners has dropped to 40.
”Some of them just couldn’t wait due to the length of time,” Douglas said. “A two-year process is way too long. I actually had people pass away during the process. It is just really sad.”
Douglas said he hopes that the concerns of victims of Irene and Lee have helped push officials to expedite the process for other homeowners. (The good news for Douglas: the state has included funds in its Sandy recovery plan to make sure homeowners who are bought out from Irene and Lee get a full 100 percent of their homes’ pre-storm value).
Despite having advocated for buyouts and having helped his residents push through the process, Douglas said there isn’t anything terribly positive about seeing residents decide it is time to pack it up.
“I’ve said since day one this isn’t a good thing,” he continued. “You lose your tax base, you lose families who have lived here for generations and you lose your identity. But with us, we couldn’t continue to put people in harm’s way.”
Douglas said he understands the reluctance of New York City officials to fully back buyouts. “Mayor Bloomberg has said he wants to build back stronger and seems to want to avoid buyouts. I’m not criticizing him because you don’t want to lose these people. You don’t want to give them up,” he said.
Sen. Joe Addabbo of Queens, who represents some of the neighborhoods hardest-hit by Sandy, including Breezy Point where dozens of homes went up in flames, said he has not seen a great deal of interest in buyouts. “We have a lot of longtime homeowners whose families have been here for generations who just want to rebuild. They aren’t looking to go somewhere else,” Addabbo said.
Addabbo acknowledged, though, that there has been confusion about buyouts. “Whenever there is a lack of information there is confusion,” he said, “but I think it will end as we get more information on the two programs in the next two weeks.”
But Addabbo admits he doesn’t favor buyouts — in fact, he thinks they are a bad idea. “Personally, no, I don’t buy into the buyout program so to speak. It is a loss of revenue for the city, and the neighborhood behind that neighborhood loses their storm buffer, I think it causes other problems,” Addabbo said.
The state senator said not enough is being done to address flood mitigation. “What about seawalls, jetties, things that mitigate flood damage? Why aren’t we talking about that? Instead we are gonna buy ‘em out? I don’t want them to leave,” he said. “As an elected official I want them to stay. Whether they have to elevate or [do] flood mitigation — whatever it takes.”
The Fox Beach community of Oakwood was labeled an “enhanced area” where the entire neighborhood was eligible for a buyout. Of the 183 households that were eligible for the state program, 180 have submitted applications according to state officials. Those homeowners are eligible for 100 percent of their homes pre-storm value.
Tirone said he thinks Cuomo’s motivations are completely apolitical. “I truly believe this plan has nothing to do with politics. The governor wants to create a natural buffer for those inland,” he said.
Meanwhile, plans for his neighborhood are developing apace. Homes have been appraised and, although he thinks Cuomo might be unhappy with him for such a bold prediction, he speculated that the process could be completed before the end of the year — a notable accomplishment given that the federal process can take three to five years at times.
But, for now, Tirone is still helping get the word out about the state program. “I get five to 10 calls a day from residents asking me to help them get bought out,” he said.
Image of destroyed home in Oakwood, Staten Island, by Paul Soulellis, used under Creative Commons license.
As demolitions begin, Staten Islanders still grappling with reality of returning land to nature
NEW YORK—Under gray skies last Thursday morning in Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach, the fifth home in this neighborhood to be demolished under the state’s buyout program gave way to the claws of an excavator.
First the garage was flattened. Next, the chimney of the house was ripped down and smashed. Then the back door and back wall of the one-story bungalow came off and the shingled roof was stacked atop the growing pile of wood and cement.
The home was once full of life, and its residents part of a community where people knew their neighbors. They walked their dogs and rode their horses on the nearby beach. They sat on their back porches in the morning with a cup of coffee and listened to the birds sing. All of that is rapidly becoming just a memory.
The demolitions in Oakwood Beach last week, one on Thursday and one on Friday, are the unofficial start of a process of returning the area to nature under a buyout program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered by the state’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery.
Superstorm Sandy’s havoc brought three deaths and 6 feet of storm surge and flooding to the Staten Island neighborhood. Some homes were lifted clean off their foundations and deposited in nearby marshland.
Like other hard-hit areas of New York City, residents started rebuilding, and tried to move on with life. But in early 2013, some realized they could appeal to the state to buy their homes so that they could afford to live somewhere else.
In order to qualify for a buyout a majority of the 319 homeowners in the area needed to be in agreement. Eventually, even those who were resistant went along with the plan. To date, there are only nine homeowners who haven’t taken part.
“It was never the intention for us to include the entire neighborhood,” said Joe Tirone Jr., the head of the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee, of the process that he helped organize. “The government … recognized the need.”
But signing on to the plan seemed to make sense.
Now listed in the 100-year floodplain, Oakwood Beach faces the threat of massive flood insurance premium rate hikes that could go up to $20,000 per year within the next two years, too much for most middle-class households. And there is always the very real possibility of being flooded again.
Oakwood Beach sits at just 5 feet above sea level, and is situated in a bowl-like natural setting without sufficient natural or man-made drainage systems.
The governor agreed to buy the homes at pre-storm market value so the land could be returned to its natural setting of marshland and tall grasses. It was reasoned that future property losses would be averted, and the reclaimed land would act as a natural buffer against flooding.
“Those homes shouldn’t be there in the first place,” said Salvatore Parello, owner of the small house at 88 Foxbeach Ave. that was demolished last Thursday. He was not on site to see it go, but was reached by phone.
He described his experience of owning the house for 40 years as: “There was problem, problem, problem. Make a claim, make a claim, make a claim.”
Representatives from the governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (OSR) estimate the cost of buying out the 310 homeowners will be at least $100 million.
The amount that each homeowner is paid varies according to the pre-storm value of the home. The average price paid for the homes is about $400,000, while one of the largest offers for a buyout was just over $710,000.
Parello said he was happy with what the state paid him, but would not disclose a specific dollar amount.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said.
As of Jan. 19, 98 residents have sold their homes to the state, and 122 have signed contracts but not yet closed on the sales. Thirty-eight homeowners have been made offers, but have yet to sign contracts.
The state estimates that in the weeks ahead, they will see an average of 10 closings a week. As soon as a deal is closed, the formal permitting and inspection process leading to demolition begins.
To Stay or Go
The governor’s office has faced questions over prospects for the few homeowners who decide to stay in the neighborhood. Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for the OSR, admits it was a tough decision for residents, but that they approached the state and not the other way around.
“The important thing to note is that it was their decision,” said Brancaccio at the demolition site last Thursday. “The people here came to the governor in nearly 100 percent consensus and essentially said, ‘We all want to leave.’”
As the buyout is voluntary, residents who stay will not be subjected to eminent domain and will still have regular city services. There will just be vastly fewer homes.
“There are other options—if people want to stay, they can stay,” said Brancaccio. “Some people might like having more space [around them].”
Not all residents are in agreement, or as clear about leaving, though. Some would rather not go anywhere.
“It’s a gamble either way,” said one homeowner, who asked not to be identified because she is among the 258 owners who have received offers from the state, but have not closed on a deal.
“From day one, a third of us didn’t want it,” the homeowner said.
As the neighborhood empties out, it is increasingly clear that people who do choose to stay might see the value of their homes drop. It might also be difficult to sell a home in an area overrun with idle land. The community is virtually gone.
“It’s horrible,” said the homeowner, “When you look at the whole picture, there’s no way to stay.”
These days, Oakwood Beach is beginning to resemble a ghost town.
Rows of neat houses—many petite, one-story bungalows—are already empty, with boarded-up windows, fenced-off yards, and signs warning against unauthorized entry and alerting for the presence of rat poison.
The impact of the overall scene makes the few occupied homes with potted plants, front porch lights, and cars parked out front seem out of place.
For Parello and the 98 other homeowners who have already closed on sales with the state, the days of living in fear of flooding and rebuilding are over. As homes are taken down and debris is hauled away, the ground will be cultivated and seeds for native grass and plants will go in.
Chris Hutchins, a project manager with the state’s NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program in the governor’s office, said at the site of the demolition Thursday that the work happens quickly. Just across the street there was recently a house, and now there is just dirt.
“You’d never know a house was there,” said Hutchins.
Representatives from the governor’s OSR said there are at least six demolitions scheduled for the week of Jan. 20, and demolitions on the remaining homes purchased by the state will proceed quickly.
By Jane Gray and Genevieve Belmaker, Epoch Times
A part of a house that floated off its foundation when Superstorm Sandy hit sits in the middle of a coastal estuary in the Oakwood Beach area of Staten Island, New York, in November 2012. (Paul J. Richards/Getty Images)
NEW YORK—Staten Islanders are among the beneficiaries of the state’s recently announced $16.7 billion Superstorm Sandy recovery plan, which includes sweeping coastline recovery and protection measures.
Almost $2 billion, mostly to protect 83 miles of exposed coastline throughout the state, will go to coastal protection and flood control. The remaining $147 million will be spread out between three New York City regions and several other locations in the state.
Projects in Red Hook, Jamaica Bay, and Staten Island will protect from future flooding with both infrastructure upgrades and enhanced natural protections, part of what Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls “living shorelines.”
In Staten Island some work is already underway on building up earthen levees to buffer storm surge and home buyouts to reclaim natural wetlands.
Staten Island is marked for part of the plan’s $368 million for home buyouts. The voluntary program allows homeowners to sell at pre-storm value to the state, which then razes the homes and returns the land to its natural state.
The practice is widely considered a win-win for government and residents, and a boon to the natural environment’s built-in ability to protect the coastline from major weather events like hurricanes.
“The whole geography of the landscape will be transformed in a way that will absorb stormwater and benefit uplands homes,” said Eric Goldstein, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has been tracking New York’s resiliency initiatives. Goldstein said benefits will include the “beauty of a natural setting without the danger” faced during storms.
After homes are bought by the state and destroyed, the neighborhood will be replaced with a natural buffer, including tide gates, a maritime forest, a breakwater reef, tidal wetlands, and earthen levees.
Two miles of walkways and wildlife observation points will also be created.
Goldstein said that though there are limited funds for the state’s buyout program, it’s imperative that the Oakwood Beach program be expanded to adjacent neighborhoods.
“The alternative is to spend money and rebuild and repair,” he said. “This is a strategy that makes sense in terms of protecting lives and property. We want to spend recovery money wisely.”
In reality, those taking part in buyouts often describe the experience as bittersweet, knowing that they have options for their future, but pained to see their home bulldozed to the ground.
“There were a lot of tears shed when they first started knocking down their homes in Oakwood Beach,” said Joe Tirone Jr., leader of the Oakwood beach buyout committee. “Many people were very emotional about it because the reality sets in that it’s really over, they are never going back. They had no choice, and they knew that they had no choice. This was a Godsend that they had the ability to move on.”
Nicole Malliotakis, a member of the New York State Assembly who represents Oakwood Beach and Ocean Beach, which are participating in the buyout program, said many of her constituents are actively seeking buyouts in part because they don’t know how and when other types of help will come.
“People are looking for buyouts, and I don’t blame them, because it really is the most viable option at this point,” said Malliotakis. “There are a lot of uncertainties with the city’s programs that are offering funding. People don’t know how much they will be able to get to rebuild their homes.”
The state is buying homes at pre-market value, which on Staten Island’s eastern and southern shores is about $400,000.
“It has been a very stressful experience for everyone,” she said.
Cuomo’s plan, which he billed as a “re-imagining New York for a new reality,” focuses on statewide plans for infrastructure, transportation networks, energy supply, coastal protection, a weather warning system, and emergency management.
“After what we went through we literally have to re-imagine New York,” said Cuomo in his State-of-the-State address on Jan. 8. “Extreme weather in many ways changes everything.”
By: Aaron Dickens
12/02/2013 01:28 PM
NY1 VIDEO:A second house in Oakwood Beach has been demolished after a state buyout of the neighborhood that was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. State officials say there will be many more in the coming weeks. NY1′s Aaron Dickens filed a report.
See the video here:
State tears down second house in Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach under buyout program (with photos/video)
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — “It’s coming down like it’s a little doll house,” said Joe Tirone Wednesday morning of the rental property he owned at 87 Fox Beach Ave. in Oakwood Beach.
The home, a one-bed beach bungalow built in 1940, was torn down by a backhoe that appeared bigger than the house itself. Its claw first ripping down wires, then the white picket fence that was still standing, before punching in the front facade and chewing at the roof.
It took less than an hour — the structure was the second Hurricane Sandy-damaged house to be demolished on Staten Island under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Recreate New York Smart Home Buyout Program, which Cuomo announced here last year.
“This is the house that started it all,” Tirone said.
The pilot program was the outgrowth of Tirone and other Oakwood Beach residents contacting the state for help, in part because the city’s Rapid Repairs program failed to address their immediate needs and the larger issue of whether the area should be built back: After hearing from Islanders, Cuomo said it should be returned to Mother Nature.
Before Tirone’s house was demolished, the work crew removed a brand-new furnace and hot water heater delivered by Rapid Repairs that had never been installed. Tirone said he hoped it would be salvaged for a needy homeowner.
Under Cuomo’s buy-out program, residents receive 100 percent pre-Sandy worth of their properties. In Oakwood Beach, that’s about $400,000 per house, with some 185 houses slated for tear downs and buyouts.
Earlier this month, Cuomo announced 129 houses would be bought out in Ocean Breeze after hearing from area residents there.
All along Fox Beach Avenue, houses are boarded up, having been bought out by the state. Tirone said they will be torn down in clusters, with much of the work expected to be done by mid-January.
“This shows the finality of what happened, how very powerful the storm was,” said Tirone as he watched his house being demolished. “It brings back all the memories of what happened. You see all the board-ups here and you realize, it’s really happening.”
Frank Moszczynski and Joe Hernkind of the Ocean Breeze Civic Association were on hand to witness what will be happening in their community soon enough.
“The governor has done a fantastic thing,” said Moszczynski, “but it is a bittersweet thing. I don’t think anyone actually likes to see a house come down. But for us, there is no alternative.”
“It brings you to that final point of saying, ‘I’m almost out of this mess,’” said Hernkind. “You need a point of closure. We need a new beginning and that’s what the governor is doing for us.”
Still, said Moszczynski: “It’s the end of an era. Picture the way it was years ago. Before the street was paved, there was sand here and a clean beach and you’d have people dragging rowboats up from the shore.”
NEW YORK (AP) — Residents of a flood-prone area battered by Superstorm Sandy are getting a financial lifeline, with state officials announcing a plan to buy all 129 homes in a neighborhood sandwiched between a tidal marsh and the Atlantic Ocean.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced the state was extending its Sandy buyout program to homeowners in Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze section, a former beach colony.
The community, like others on Staten Island’s southeast coast, has flooded repeatedly since people started building small bungalows there in the early days of the automobile age, and the superstorm, spawned when Hurricane Sandy merged with two other weather systems, appears to have finally persuaded them to give the land back to the ocean.
Two residents drowned when the storm struck in October 2012. Rushing floodwaters knocked down 20 houses. Most of the other houses were badly damaged. Some residents have made repairs, but many houses remain boarded up.
Under a program already at work in a neighboring area, Oak Beach, residents will be offered a little above the pre-storm value of their homes to give them to the state. Participation is voluntary, but Frank Moszczynski, an Ocean Breeze resident for 43 years and president of the local civic association, said 117 people have indicated they intend to say yes to the state’s offer.
“It’s not nice to see your neighborhood go like that,” he said, adding that few people were interested in staying to rebuild. “We never want to have to do a memorial to any of our neighbors ever again.”
Cuomo said the storm showed the neighborhood should be returned to nature.
“If a community decides enough is enough, and they want to move, we want to help,” he said.
A case can be made that people never should’ve been allowed to build homes in the area. Storms have repeatedly destroyed homes there. A New York Times article from 1918 described 100 small bungalows being washed away during a storm. There was more flooding and destruction in 1920 and 1922. A 1927 storm brought floodwaters nearly a mile inland.
“Hundreds marooned in Staten Island homes,” read a Times headline after a catastrophic 1932 flood.
Hundreds of people left the area when wind blew down cottages and waves took others in 1953.
The city’s master planner Robert Moses tried to do something about the flooding in 1955 by building up Staten Island’s South Beach with 2 million cubic yards of fill. But by 1977, residents were again suffering after days of heavy rain left waist-deep water in their living rooms.
The state launched its home buyout program in a handful of flood-prone areas in April. It has extended offers to 613 homeowners in Suffolk County, on Long Island, and 312 homeowners in Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach neighborhood.
Joe Herrnking, a 15-year resident of Ocean Breeze who lived in his car for three months after Sandy destroyed his house, called the buyout announcement a “step toward closure.”
“It was time,” he said, “for the neighborhood to go back to nature.”
On the night of Oct. 29, 2012, with the Atlantic’s waters quickly rising inside his bungalow home in the Fox Beach section of Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, N.Y., Frank Langello fled to the attic, aware that if the waters rose any more, he would be trapped. But he didn’t know what else to do. As Superstorm Sandy bore down, he had stayed behind rather than abandon his family’s pets, and now he listened in the darkness as the walls below collapsed under the weight of the ocean pressing against them.
Both the nor’easter of 2010 and Hurricane Irene of 2011 had flooded the basement and left the Langellos without heat or hot water for weeks, but this was another thing entirely. Now he could feel the house swaying with Sandy’s gusts. He was certain the surging water would soon carry the whole edifice away, drowning all of them together — man, dogs and cat.
On the phone to his wife, Samantha Langello — who had evacuated with their two small children only hours before — he cried, “We’re done. We’re never coming back here again.”
They never did.
For the past year, the Langellos have lived as far inland and as high uphill as they could afford on Staten Island. As Samantha Langello evaluated the elevation of potential rentals, she uttered to herself so frequently, “Water runs downhill,” that soon her 6-year-old son could be heard parroting the mantra.
They will never have to return to Fox Beach, thanks to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s buyout program. He announced the buyouts in late February, and Fox Beach was the first Sandy-stricken area to be offered the option: Sell your destroyed home to the state at predisaster value (with additional incentives to make moving on easier) and the state will demolish it and not allow the land to be redeveloped.
This program freed the Langellos of the economic constraints that often force people to rebuild in the same location after an environmental disaster. In fact, the entire neighborhood of Fox Beach is not coming back. All but one of the 185 households in the once thriving working-class community have taken the buyout.
What was a vibrant and friendly community — where at one end children played football in the street and at the other, immigrant Italian grandparents grew tomatoes, squash, figs and persimmons — will eventually disappear. Since these properties can’t be redeveloped, they will be left to revert to nature, which already appears eager to move in; reeds, no longer bound by the fences that were swept away a year ago, now reach 12 feet tall, and grass peeks up through foundations of houses pushed off from where they had stood for decades.
An entire community taking a buyout is not unprecedented. Still, what happens and how in Fox Beach is likely to be watched very closely as a potential model that embraces an idea — managed retreat — that is gaining currency after having lost out 20 years ago to unfettered coastal development, redefining along the way what resilience means in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“The intervals between disasters used to be longer,” said Scott Gabriel Knowles, a professor at Drexel University and the author of “The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America.” Of the 10 most devastating hurricanes in the U.S., nine have occurred in the last 10 years.
“We are not living a long stretch of normal life in between disaster,” he said. “We are living in disaster.”
He also points out that in the post–World War II era, more and more Americans are moving to the coasts — 39 percent of the U.S. population now resides there. The sheer level of development along coastal areas, he explained, has increased the frequency of disaster losses.
“The power of the real estate development growth complex is as big as it gets,” Knowles said. “So when government and people stand up to them, there’s maybe a new reality dawning that we cannot just keep doing this.”
Establishing a trend?
Most buyouts — like the New York state program — are 75 percent funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and 25 percent by state and local governments. In New York, Cuomo set aside $400 million to buy out Sandy-damaged properties.
Since the early 1970s, voluntary buyouts have been used, though not often, to encourage people in areas prone to repeat flooding to move out or to ensure undeveloped properties remain vacant permanently. But it was not until the devastating flooding in the Midwest in 1993 that government acquisition of flood-prone properties began in earnest.
Buyouts represent a different strategy of hazard mitigation from other flood-control measures, including structural devices such as dams, levees and floodwalls, or the National Flood Insurance Program, which requires homeowners in risk areas to share the costs of potential future disasters by paying into the system pre-emptively. Despite the billions spent on such measures, flood losses continue to mount.
But the effectiveness of buyouts, in terms of money and lives saved, has been tested by subsequent flooding. For example, after 1993 Midwest floods, FEMA estimated that $30 million in flood damage was avoided when the same areas flooded again in 1995.
Buyouts are voluntary. Often it comes down to individual families deciding what makes the most sense for them. For an entire community to take a buyout is rare and requires unity and a collective desire to move, said Jack Rozdilsky, a professor of emergency management at Western Illinois University. For years he has followed the small town of Valmeyer, Ill., which after the 1993 floods took a buyout and used the money to move the entire town together to higher and safer land. Twenty years later, the population has increased from 900 to 1,200 and is growing. Old Valmeyer has since been reclaimed by nature, as will likely happen in Fox Beach, though Rozdilsky said a visitor might still see a hint of a linear street grid or an occasional mailbox or streetlight poking out through the long grasses.
But Valmeyer was the exception. Most of the other Midwestern towns rebuilt, taking measures to mitigate damage from flooding.
Fox Beach, Rozdilsky said, has the potential to establish a trend.
“If we can do buyouts in these dense areas, then we can do it in other parts of the country. If it could work in Staten Island, then it can work in other hazard-prone areas like the Gulf Coast, Texas.”
Of course, the other costs involved in buyouts — such as the social ones of scattering a community and breaking often long-established bonds — are much harder to quantify. The Langellos plan to move back to their native Pennsylvania, which regrettably means giving up their neighbors.
“I wish I could just move everyone with me,” Samantha Langello said.
‘I could finally exhale’
The day after Frank Langello was rescued by a neighbor that October, Samantha Langello returned to see what was left of Fox Beach. Some houses had vanished, while pieces of others were strewn among the phragmites, on roofs and inside other houses. The National Guard was on her street, and so was the New York Police Department; three neighbors had died, including the man with the easy smile who delivered the weekly coupon circular. Standing outside her house, she could see the floors and ceilings of her basement and living room stacked like pancakes. Much of the drywall had been eaten away by the saltwater, exposing the house’s electrical and plumbing innards.
They had worked for a year to piece together the financing to buy the house. If it had been worth anything at all after Sandy, it would have been only a small fraction of what they had paid. Their insurance, which included flood insurance required by their mortgage holder, would not cover all the damage. And even if they repaired the house, they would never be able to recoup what they had paid for it or what they had put in to fix it. They felt as if they were drowning.
Then in November, a neighborhood meeting was called. After a 1992 nor’easter severely flooded the community, neighbors formed a flood-victim group that remained somewhat active, enough so that the community was able to mobilize relatively quickly. Joe Tirone, a real estate agent who owned one of the homes, attended. Because he bought the house in cash, he had not been required to have flood insurance, and he had already begun researching buyouts. After he told the Fox Beach residents what he had learned, it became clear many of the other residents were similarly interested.
They began to work together toward the goal of being bought out by the state. Their efforts were successful. After Cuomo announced the state’s plan to buy out properties, Fox Beach was the first community offered the option.
“I could finally exhale,” said Samantha Langello, describing her reaction to the news that they would be bought out. She credits Tirone’s leadership.
Tirone credits Cuomo, who served as the Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Bill Clinton, for knowing how to navigate the funding of the buyouts — drawing on what he learned from the slow-going buyouts offered to small upstate towns after Hurricane Irene — to create a process that residents of Fox Beach have so far been satisfied with.
As of today, 15 Fox Beach residents have closed on their buyout deals. Another 50 are expected to be done by the anniversary of Sandy this week. The Langellos have a closing date of Nov. 1.
Challenging the narrative
At a news conference with Cuomo in April discussing the state’s post-Sandy efforts, Sen. Charles Schumer said that, other than a handful of people who want to relocate, most people wanted to rebuild.
“I think that’s great,” he said. “That shows the spirit of New York.”
He was alluding to the grit New Yorkers are often celebrated for and to an American ideal of indefatigable resolve in the face of challenges.
“It’s built into our culture. We take pride in toughing it out, in building back stronger,” said David Salvesen, deputy director at the Center for Sustainable Community Design at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “After disasters, we make T-shirts that say ‘I survived.’”
Even though it’s a foggy term that can mean different things, resilience — with its positive imprimatur — is often understood to mean rebuilding. Whereas re-evaluating the costs and benefits of living in hazard-prone areas is considered retreat.
In June at the unveiling of a voluminous report detailing New York City’s assessment of Sandy’s impact and the risks posed by climate change, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that despite the threat of rising sea levels and the possibility of storms worse than Sandy, the city should continue to build along the waterfront but build better.
“As New Yorkers, we cannot and will not abandon our waterfront,” he said. “We must protect it, not retreat from it.”
Earlier, Bloomberg had revealed his own plan to acquire damaged homes, but at post-Sandy prices, which allows the city to redevelop the properties.
“Retreat sounds inherently un-American,” said Rutherford H. Platt, a professor emeritus of geography at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Indeed, climate migration has not been a part of the American experience as much as it has in other parts of the world, where the costs in the aftermath of disaster are too great to allow for an assumption of the same risk again, especially where there are no government subsidies to mitigate those costs.
But this might be changing — flood-insurance premiums are going up (as per changes made to the National Flood Insurance Program under the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act), and repeated flooding and its trauma are convincing people they’d rather be called wimps than experience that suffering again.
“We use words like ‘retreat’ and ‘conquer storm’ and ‘control river.’ — That concept is evolving from controlling nature to living with it, but these aren’t easy things to do,” said Salvesen.
Platt added, “‘Adaptation’ might be a better term, which would cover both strategies of making buildings less flood prone wherever they are located by moving up vertically or providing some kind of shore protection or moving inland and abandoning a structure or moving it.”
Similarly, the meaning of “resilience” continues to expand. The word no longer describes just people; planners, developers and politicians talk about resilient buildings, communities and cities as well.
“You have to answer what resilience means differentially at different scales,” said James Kendra, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “For example, a community has some geographic location. So community resilience means building back or building better, being less vulnerable. At a household level, that might mean taking a buyout or not, as in the middle class, the house is a principal way of transmitting wealth. As we shift to more virtual kinds of social systems, that assessment also shifts.”
And what resilience in the face of Sandy-like disasters looks like might also be changing as people who have to bear the consequences of tempting nature break away from the groupthink.
Samantha Langello, after reading critical comments on articles she saw online about Sandy and the buyouts, vehemently defended her choice as a form of resilience.
“It is more resilient that we started fresh,” she said. “I didn’t lie down and roll over because I walked away from my home. I picked myself up. I put a roof over my kids’ head within days of the storm. I didn’t stand here with my hand out. I acted. And I made the situation better for my family.
“That’s resilience to me.”
The Associated Press
The forces of nature had been threatening the Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach neighborhood for years, flooding the streets every time it rained, sending crabs skittering into bungalows and swamping basements so regularly that it was just accepted as part of life.
But after Superstorm Sandy swept in with 20-foot waves that crashed over roofs and killed three people, those who have lived here for generations decided it was time to go. Soon, the state will buy some 400 homes, bulldoze them and never again allow anything to be built here.
Oakwood Beach will finally surrender to the sea.
“The heartache of losing my home, the heartache of losing my memories, the blood and sweat and tears that I put into this home, is going to be healed by seeing trees and nature come back to that spot right there,” said Joe Monte, a construction worker who had built his dream house overlooking the ocean. “And that’s going to make me feel better.”
The neighborhood is the first _ and so far only _ New York City community to be totally bought out under a state program that promises to turn wrecked neighborhoods into perpetual green space.
“The chances of us being able to sell this house at a later date and move on really were slim,” said Danielle Mancuso, who is being bought out of the attached duplex she lives in with her husband and three young children. “Who could afford to pay the flood insurance premium? Because we’re all attached, we could not elevate. We would really just be sitting ducks.”
The state of New York plans to spend up to $400 million buying out and knocking down homes in Sandy-affected communities in the city and on Long Island, offering residents the pre-storm value of their houses. In New Jersey, the state is planning to spend about $300 million to buy about 1,000 damaged homes.
Most homeowners in Oakwood Beach have already applied and are proceeding toward the state’s offer to purchase. The first house was demolished last week, and the state has already bought about a dozen homes. New Jersey officials purchased their first two homes last week.
Getting a buyout is the equivalent of winning the lottery for homeowners who lost everything during the storm, although not all residents want to be bought out. On New York City’s Rockaway peninsula, for example, homeowners are determined to stay put and rebuild.
Much of the clamor for buyouts is coming from Staten Island, where waves slammed against third-floor windows and 23 people drowned, most of them trapped inside their own homes.
Although Oakwood Beach’s buyout push has been a success, the future is far less certain for hundreds of people who have signed petitions demanding the same deal in nearly every other devastated shorefront community on Staten Island: New Dorp Beach, Midland Beach, Ocean Breeze and Tottenville, among others.
Right now, those areas are only eligible for a city program that buys individual properties for redevelopment _ a program that so far has purchased only one home. But because many have yet to receive a dime from the city’s Sandy aid programs, they’re skeptical.
In Ocean Breeze, a neighborhood that remains mostly deserted since the storm, about half of the 120 homeowners have signed a petition requesting a buyout from the governor’s office.
“We’re below sea level,” said Frank Moszczynski, who lives on a creekfront block where one house floated across the street and several others were demolished. “We’re in a bowl that was created at the end of the ice age.”
State officials say they chose to buy out Oakwood Beach after analyzing historical flooding data and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s scientific flood maps. The other crucial factor was quick mobilization: residents began marshaling resources for a buyout the day after Sandy hit.
Among them was Patti Snyder, who grew up on the block and never left. Her brother, Leonard Montalto, lived down the street. Two days after the storm, when his body was found amid the ruins of his home, Snyder knew it was over.
“That’s when we knew we weren’t going to rebuild at that point,” she said. “It just took everything out of us.”
Monte was standing in the middle of his flooded home the day after Sandy, ankle-deep in toxic sludge, when he realized his house was beyond saving. He walked out and hasn’t gone back in since.
He still can’t bring himself to approach the side of the house where his good friend, John Filipowicz, used to show up with a six-pack of beers and burgers to grill after work. Filipowicz died, along with his son, in the basement of their home.
“I am not the person that I was because of what happened,” Monte said. “I have trouble with everything. … I have trouble with just being a person.”
The residents of Oakwood Beach are still working out the details of their buyouts but rest easier knowing they’ll receive the pre-Sandy value of their homes _ enough to set up somewhere far from shore.
Monte grew up poor in Brooklyn and always vowed to give his two daughters a home they could be proud of. Twelve years and more than $500,000 later, he had transformed his bungalow into a beautiful, slate-gray home with a widow’s peak at the top. On clear nights, he’d sit on the second-story deck and watch the lit-up Staten Island Ferry crossing the bay.
Now the swimming pool that he worked so hard to afford has been overtaken by nature. Minnows dart among seaweed and algae in the murky water. Halloween decorations that adorned the house last fall are still lying on the patio.
When Oakwood Beach is at last returned to nature, Monte hopes a memorial plaque will be erected on a tree or a park bench to remember his neighbors who died. But he won’t come back to see it.
“I don’t want to remember Sandy. I don’t want to remember my neighbors dying in a storm. I want to remember the good times,” he said. “They’ve got to level this whole area. Get it over with, get it done. Get the beauty back to this neighborhood.”