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.