Nearly two years after Hurricane Sandy, New York has begun a “managed retreat” from some low-lying areas that are vulnerable to flooding and storm surges. Many residents of the Oakwood Beach section of Staten Island have opted into a program that allows them to sell their homes at pre-Sandy value, to the State of New York, which intends to return hundreds of parcels of land to nature. The cleared neighborhood will then serve as a buffer zone to protect other parts of the island. The program has been extended to other areas of Staten Island and Long Island that are at continued risk of flooding in the face of climate-change-related events. In this video, residents describe their experiences with the buyout program, and urban planners explain why communities along the East Coast need to consider moving away from the water’s edge.
The video can be seen in the link below.
While many city neighborhoods hit by Hurricane Sandy have yet to rebuild, Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach is returning to its original state at breakneck speed.
That earlier condition, however, is the uninhabited marshy lowlands of the type that greeted Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to cross the narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island 500 years ago.
“It’s really mind-boggling,” said Joseph Tirone, a Staten Island resident who led the push for the state to buy out homeowners and turn the area into a nature preserve and bulwark against future floods. “They’ve done over 50 demolitions already.”
For some homeowners who advocated building back, the buyout seemed like a defeatist approach. Residents of a swath of Oakwood Beach, however, the first community to sign up for the state buyout, sold their small homes and bungalows at pre-storm prices. They have moved on with their lives, spurring neighbors frustrated with the rebuilding process to follow suit.
As Crain’s reported last year, Mr. Tirone learned about the buyout offer then taking shape just a few weeks after the storm. Curious, he sought advice from people in Tennessee and upstate New York who had lived through similar disasters and had successfully turned to a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for help. On their advice, he skirted the city government’s still inchoate recovery and, instead, with his neighbors’ overwhelming support, completed reams of paperwork and put his fate and theirs in Albany’s hands.
A few months later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would seek funding from Washington, D.C., to complete the Oakwood Beach buyout—making the area the model for a greener, safer post-Sandy Staten Island. Of the 184 homes in the buyout zone, all but about 40 have taken the deal. Those left over are dealing with problem mortgages, and have voiced interest in a buyout.
Buying into a buyout
“The federal buyout program never anticipated a whole community being bought out, but the utter devastation of our area called for that,” said Mr. Tirone, who is now running for state Assembly.
To sweeten the deal, Mr. Cuomo created an “enhanced zone” within the buyout program that included a 10% cash bonus for homeowners who participated. It worked.
“People on the fence about selling just put blinders on and took the opportunity to get out,” said Mr. Tirone.
Their neighborhood on Staten Island’s southeastern shore today looks somewhat post-apocalyptic. Some lots are empty. Others are in various states of decay. The remains of a white-shingled house on Kissam Avenue sags in on itself behind an orange plastic fence. Six-foot-tall reeds encroach upon it from either side, brushing the boarded-up windows in the gentle breeze coming off the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
With the state cutting checks for dilapidated houses and Oakwood Beach’s transformation moving ahead, it didn’t take long for people in other hard-hit areas to start asking about selling out.
“I thought what happened over there was great, but it was hard for me to appreciate that while my own neighborhood was still totally destroyed,” said Frank Moszcynski, a resident of Ocean Breeze, just a mile and a half north of Oakwood Beach.
Residents there said that city officials who went on to establish the Build It Back program came to Ocean Breeze in November 2012 and pledged to buy back homes, but only at reduced, post-storm prices. It was not a great deal, but it was better than nothing.
“They said they’d be back tomorrow with paperwork to get things started,” Mr. Moszcynski recalled. “Tomorrow never came.”
Joe Herrnkind—a neighbor of Mr. Moszcynski who was unable to get back into his house for three days and who discovered that the floodwaters had gone as high as his attic—was similarly frustrated by what seemed to be the city’s ham-fisted response. In the spring of 2013, they formed the Staten Island Alliance, a community group focused on getting relief for the area around Ocean Breeze. Inspired by what had been done at Oakwood Beach, Mr. Moszcynski inquired about the state buyout program, only to be told by a local city official, “I think we can both agree that ship has sailed.”
Undeterred, Mr. Moszcynski began to ask around. A few weeks later, a mutual friend introduced him to Mr. Tirone, who assured Mr. Moszcynski that the buyout program was very much available to those who knew how to apply.
Playing the role that community leaders in Tennessee and upstate had played for him, Mr. Tirone guided the alliance through a bureaucratic maze.
Ocean Breeze homeowners responded much like those in Oakwood Beach had. Messrs. Herrnkind and Moszcynski on weekends set up a tent in their neighborhood and urged neighbors to sign a petition urging the governor to buy them out. More than 90% did, and on Nov. 19 of last year, Mr. Cuomo stood next to the tent and told the community that the buyout would go forward.
“I hadn’t seen that many smiles since before the storm,” said Mr. Moszcynski. “There was finally some sense of hope around here.”
After that press conference, buyouts started in Ocean Breeze, and Mr. Cuomo has again used the enhanced zone idea to increase the participation rate, helping to return this quiet community to nature.
“People here are happy with the buyout,” said Mr. Herrnkind. “We’re moving on with our lives a lot faster than the people in Build It Back.”
Correction: City officials who eventually established the Build It Back program visited Ocean Breeze in November 2012. This fact was misstated in an earlier version of this article, originally published online Oct. 20, 2014.
A version of this article appears in the October 20, 2014, print issue of Crain’s New York Business.
Patti Snyder was 8 when her family moved into a white bungalow a stone’s throw from the sea. Her Italian immigrant father wanted his children to have the opportunity to regularly enjoy what for years he had known only on vacations.
Located in the borough of Staten Island in New York, Fox Beach was the sort of neighborhood where teachers, firefighters, cops and sanitation workers could have their own version of the good life, digging for clams on Midland Beach, fishing for stripers off the pier. Snyder and her brother wanted the same life for their children, so they stayed put, with her brother, Lenard Montalto, raising three daughters in the house he grew up in, Snyder raising her family in a house just down the block. When her daughter moved out of the house, she bought a house on the same block.
Two years ago, Superstorm Sandy changed everything. While Snyder and the rest of her clan evacuated, Montalto stayed behind. Previously in wild weather, their house had taken in a few inches of water in the basement, and he wanted to make sure the pump worked.
When the floodwaters receded, he was nowhere to be found.
After two days of frantic searching, authorities found his body in the basement of the house that had been the lodestar of three generations. He had drowned.
So when Snyder’s house was demolished this summer, she was ready. So were her neighbors. Forty homes in Fox Beach were razed last year, and 200 or so houses will follow — all part of an extraordinarily well-wrought grass-roots campaign to push the state government to buy their homes and return Fox Beach to nature.
If a house is standing in Fox Beach now, it will have a notice of demolition stapled to the front door, with boards over the windows.
“When I first saw all of the homes boarded up like that, I thought, ‘My god, what have we done?’” Snyder says. “But it was the right choice. When we found my brother, I knew that I would never go back. No one should live out there.”
(Previous coverage of Fox Beach)
Joseph Tirone, a local real estate developer who owned a parcel on Fox Beach Avenue, took the lead researching recent buyout cases due to flooding in upstate New York and Nashville, Tennessee. He says a visit to Fox Beach by then–City Council Speaker Christine Quinn made it clear that city assistance might be slow.
But it became clear that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s history as Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary of might play in Fox Beach’s favor, since he had experience with disaster recovery. About a year after Sandy, the state utilized community development block grants (CDBGs) and HUD money to purchase the homes at prestorm prices as part of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).
In 2016 the Federal Emergency Management Agency will rewrite the national flood insurance maps, doubling the number of households in the New York metro area that fall within the 100- year-flood zone. For those living in areas considered at high-risk for flooding, insurance will be mandatory and expensive as premiums are set to rise, as per the controversial Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012. What this means for low- to middle-income residents living in flood-prone areas remains to be seen.
The federally administered HMGP was designed to reduce the loss of life and property in the face of regularly recurring natural disasters. Whether the rising sea level qualifies as a regularly recurring disaster is still unclear. Over the past five years, the federal government has spent more than $77 billion dollars on addressing climate change, and yet Congress still hasn’t passed a major piece of legislation to deal specifically with the effects of rising sea levels.
As a result of ocean warming and melting ice sheets, over the next 40 years, the ocean around New York City is predicted to rise anywhere from 11 to 31 inches, doubling the number of city residents vulnerable to flooding and greatly increasing the risk to those living in areas that already flood. HMGP grants are being used, albeit in what some say is a frustratingly piecemeal fashion, throughout the city to either provide money to elevate and floodproof existing structures or to purchase homes in high-risk communities so that they can be demolished and the land returned to its natural state.
Two years after Superstorm Sandy struck the Northeast, hundreds of Staten Islanders are deciding whether to sell their shorefront homes to New York state, which wants to knock them down and let the empty land act as a buffer to the ocean.
Stephen Drimalas was one Staten Islander faced with this tough decision. He lived in a bungalow not far from the beach in the working-class neighborhood of Ocean Breeze. He barely escaped Sandy’s floodwaters with his life.
“I had to speed outta here,” Drimalas said. “Another minute or two and I wasn’t getting out. That’s how fast it came in.”
He was folding laundry before he fled. And when he came back the next day, the clothes were there on the top of his bed, but the bed was floating in water. He slept in his car on cold nights — before the FEMA check showed up — because he couldn’t afford a motel room.
He fought with his insurance company, and when that money finally came through, he rebuilt his severely damaged home. A year after Sandy, it sounded like he’d be staying.
“This was a freaky thing that happened,” he said. “It was a superstorm; it was a perfect storm. So I don’t think we’ll ever get another one again in my lifetime.”
But about a third of his neighbors never came back. And when the city tore down several condemned homes, his block started looking gap-toothed and forlorn.
He wondered, “What if I wanted to move? Who’d pay money for a house in a flood zone?”
And Drimalas was still spooked from the night the storm rushed in.
“You know what happened, a couple of weeks ago, we had bad weather, and you hear the wind howling and everything like that,” he said. “Then you start thinking, ‘Uh oh, is the water coming again?’ You know? It goes through your mind now ’cause, you know, it’s in your head.”
Then New York state offered to buy his home as part of program to get people out of dangerous areas likely to flood again. And after thinking it over, Drimalas took the deal. In the past two years, he’s cycled through all the emotions of the victim of disaster: grief, fear, anger, defiance. But now there’s a new one: contentment.
“And little by little, they’re moving out,” Drimalas said. “You’ll start seeing more and more U-Haul trucks here. People just want to go.”
The state will spend about $200 million to purchase land in Ocean Breeze and two other Staten Island neighborhoods. That’s about 550 acres of waterfront property in New York City that now faces an extremely unusual fate: permanent abandonment.
“We are going to demolish the homes,” said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office of Storm Recovery.
“Essentially, they go back to nature,” she said. “We didn’t bring this possibility to the community. The community came to us and said, ‘We want to go.’ ”
But a handful of people are planning to stay. Brancaccio says that a year from now, those holdouts can expect their neighbors to be rabbits, raccoons and wild turkeys. Drimalas says it’s happening already.
“You know what [I saw] in my yard the other day? A muskrat,” he said.
Drimalas is preparing to relocate to his Florida condo. It’s 2 miles inland and 30 feet above sea level. Right now he’s selling or giving away his stuff, including a really big barbecue grill.
“My family’s going to come take whatever they want first, whatever they need, and then I’ll just sell the rest,” he said.
For all he’s been through, Drimalas is one of the lucky ones. Two of his neighbors, both in their 80s, drowned in Sandy’s floodwaters. Drimalas may be saying goodbye to his home, but he gets to start again.