Staten Island resident Joseph Tirone brought the idea of a buyout group to his neighbors. Photo credit: Buck Ennis
A few weeks ago, in the Oakwood Beach section of Staten Island, it looked almost as though some sort of neighborhood reunion was taking place. Former residents milled about and chatted amicably in what remained of the seaside community where Superstorm Sandy left three dead, scores of properties either destroyed or badly damaged, and many people still homeless.
“Most of us are like wandering gypsies,” said Joe Szczesny, a 63-year-old MTA Bridges and Tunnels employee. “We’re wandering around in Sandy time, while everyone else is in normal time.”
What drew Mr. Szczesny and others that cloudy afternoon was the hope of taking an important step toward putting their lives back together and rejoining the rest of the world. They gathered to await appraisers sent out to assay their properties in preparation for their purchase by New York state. In his State of the State speech in January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns”—areas where it made more sense not to rebuild but to pay owners the full original value for their properties and allow them to move on.
In Oakwood Beach, owners of nearly 170 of the 184 properties have applied to join the program. More than six months after Sandy hit, however, it is increasingly apparent that in the state as a whole, they are in a distinct minority. Albany officials estimate that of the 10,000 homes in the state severely damaged by the storm, the owners of only 10% to 15% of those eligible for a buyout will go that route. Instead, the vast majority of people are leaning toward rebuilding.
Until the size of expected insurance-rate hikes is known, and federal officials release the final update of flood-zone maps, making the sell-or-stay call will be difficult. Further muddying the waters are differing objectives from the city and state governments, with the former focusing on rebuilding and the latter pushing buyouts, said Joseph Pupello, head of Zone A New York, a group of housing and environmental experts monitoring rehabilitation efforts.
“It’s difficult for homeowners to make decisions,” he said.
A spokesman for the governor notes that the state has several options for homeowners, including not just the buyout, but also storm-mitigation grants designed to “allow people to build back their homes smarter and stronger to protect against another similar weather disaster.” At this point, the one thing that’s clear is that no matter what people decide to do, getting their lives back together will take time, as Oakwood Beach residents have already discovered.
“The process has just started,” said Jerry, a 54-year-old retiree who declined to give his last name. “But to see it getting to this point already is good.” Much of the credit for that has to go the residents themselves, who two weeks after Sandy struck banded together to form the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee. In one of its first acts, the group began lobbying local, city and state officials to pick the neighborhood to be part of a pilot program to return the land to its natural condition.
The eight-person committee met weekly until Mr. Cuomo announced in March that he would seek federal approval for the state’s storm recovery plan, which included Oakwood Beach as a testing ground for the buyout. At the same time, the committee hosted monthly meetings to keep other landowners up to speed on developments.
“If it wasn’t for [the committee], I wouldn’t have a clue what to do,” said Trisha Breslin, a 48-year-old city Department of Education employee whose one-floor home was gutted.
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who represents the east shore of Staten Island, called the Oakwood Beach committee a model for other residents affected by Sandy.
“They advocated, they were very organized, they came to the elected officials,” she said. “It sets a good example for other communities.” Joseph Tirone, a 55-year-old Staten Islander who owns properties in Oakwood Beach that he rented out, was one of those who helped launch the committee. Subsequently, he has become a point man and a sounding board for local homeowners. During the appraisals last month, he was unable to walk through the neighborhood without residents stopping him with a barrage of questions from the sidewalk, their doorsteps or through their car windows as they drove through.
Mr. Tirone got the idea for the buyout from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Agency personnel told him about a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program that had been used in Tennessee and in upstate New York’s Essex County following disasters in both places in recent years. Two weeks after Sandy, Mr. Tirone brought the idea of a buyout to a group of about 200 homeowners at a meeting at St. Charles Church on Penn Avenue. When he asked for a show of hands of those interested in such a program, the response was nearly unanimous. “I was not ready for that answer,” Mr. Tirone admitted.
What helped was Oakwood Beach’s history. Over nearly a century, the area has endured a series of natural disasters, from repeated floods to brushfires in the tall grass in the nearby wetlands. In the wake of the latest calamity, some of the area’s original inhabitants—flocks of geese and a handful of deer—have already reappeared. The death and destruction caused by Sandy have persuaded many residents to take Albany’s cash and move on.
Today, many of the dwellings in the buyout area are abandoned and in complete disrepair. Owners of a few others have decided to spend thousands on modest furnishings to make their homes livable while they wait for the buyout.
Cynthia Scarsella, a 48-year-old drug-rehabilitation therapist, has spent $72,000—$12,000 of which was paid out of pocket—repairing the home she bought in 2007 for $285,000. She still wants to move on, but not at any price.
“I am not willing to give my house away for peanuts,” she said.
Most property owners are expecting to get pre-storm value for their homes, with bonuses for property in targeted areas. The average home can go for about $400,000.
For some, however, it’s not time to go. Frank Lettieri, a 63-year-old licensed practical nurse, who early on attended two buyout committee meetings, said he was unpersuaded to give up his family home of 26 years, especially because he figures the next big storm is likely many years away. “I have a nice piece of New York City here,” he said. “If they give us $1 million, I don’t want it.”
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.
Governor Cuomo Seeks Federal Approval of NY State Plans for Housing and Business Storm Recovery Programs
Governor Cuomo Seeks Federal Approval of NY State Plans for Housing and Business Storm Recovery Programs
NYS is First State or Local Government to Release Action Plan for Initial $1.7B in Federal CDBG Funding for Disaster Recovery
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today submitted New York State’s proposal for housing and business recovery programs to help New Yorkers devastated by Superstorm Sandy, as well as Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. These programs will provide billions of dollars in direct aid to individuals, homeowners, and small businesses using funding from the $60 billion Sandy Aid approved by Congress and signed in to law by President Obama in January. The State designed the diverse array of programs to specifically target federal aid to New Yorkers most in need and ensure the affected communities, and the entire region, builds back smarter and stronger than before. New York State is the first affected government entity to submit its action plan for approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency designated to coordinate the federal government’s response to Superstorm Sandy.
“Superstorm Sandy was the worst storm to hit New York State and our region in recorded history, and its impact devastated homes and businesses across Long Island and the metro area,” Governor Cuomo said. “Thanks to the hard work and leadership of our state’s Congressional Delegation, New York will receive billions of dollars in federal assistance to help homeowners and businesses undertake repairs and rebuild after the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy, as well as Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. This plan was put together with the input of homeowners and small businesses in affected communities, and it will serve as a blueprint to guide our housing and private sector recovery.”
In January, Congress passed approximately $60 billion in supplemental appropriations to cover damage caused by storms affecting the United States, of which more than $30 billion is expected to be directed to New York State. Last week, HUD issued rules and regulations governing the use of the first $1.7 billion allocated to New York, and formally invited New York to apply for funds to assist homeowners, small businesses, and communities impacted by Sandy, Irene and Lee with their ongoing recovery efforts. HUD is required to formally approve the State’s proposed programs under the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program before they can release any of these funds to the State. The programs outlined today will be offered outside New York City, as New York City will administer similar programs to meet the same needs within the City using their own CDBG-DR allocation of $1.7 billion.
The State’s Action Plan is available for public review at http://www.nyshcr.org/Publications/. The Action Plan represents the spending plan only for this initial allocation of CDBG-DR funds and does not reflect the full scope of recovery activities being undertaken by the State through other state and federal programs.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who also serves as Chair of the Hurricane Rebuilding Sandy Task Force, said, “We have worked closely with the State of New York to identify areas of unmet need and ensure that this first round of CDBG-DR funding helps families and small businesses get back on their feet. Based on our conversations we are confident the state is moving in the right direction, though we will review the final action plans and ensure they are aligned with the criteria for use that were published last week. I look forward to building on the partnership we have created with Governor Cuomo to help communities in New York rebuild in a way that makes them stronger, more economically competitive and better able to withstand the next storm.”
In order for the state to be able to distribute the funds to New Yorkers eligible for aid, HUD must formally approve the State’s proposed programs. The release of the plan commences a federally required seven day period for public comment prior to HUD’s final review.
“We have been working hand in hand with our federal partners since the day Sandy struck and every day since. The state will provide whatever assistance and collaboration necessary to see that HUD approves these plans as quickly as possible so we can get this aid to the New Yorkers who need and deserve it,” Governor Cuomo added.
Nassau County Executive Edward P. Mangano said, “These Federal funds are critical in helping our residents recover from the damage of Hurricane Sandy. With these programs, we will help meet the immediate needs of homeowners, assist businesses in recovery so that our economy can continue to grow, and begin to build back our communities stronger. I commend Governor Cuomo for his leadership and commitment to helping Nassau residents recover.”
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said, “Suffolk County looks forward to working with the New York State to administer CDBG funds to those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Rebuilding is a priority for our residents and we applaud Governor Cuomo for creating vital programs to address the needs of Suffolk County residents.”
The following program allocations are based on the initial $1.7B made available to the State. Additional funding in later allocations will continue to address these areas of need.
As many as 300,000 homes across the state were damaged in some way by Superstorm Sandy alone, and approximately two-thirds of all properties flooded by Sandy were not covered by flood insurance. Even where property owners have insurance, in many instances it has not reimbursed the full amount needed to repair damage, leaving families with a substantial repair and recovery burden. Furthermore, many families cannot afford to invest in disaster mitigation measures to reduce the risk of future damage, even though these investments are cost effective and save lives in the long term. To help homeowners impacted by these three storms recover, New York State is asking HUD to approve a series of housing programs to help families rebuild their homes better and smarter.
Single Family Housing: $663 Million:
- Recreate NY Smart Home Repair and Reconstruction Grants - $233 million: Homeowners located in the counties affected by Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, whose cost to repair or replace their home exceeds the funding they received from other sources may be eligible for Recreate NY Smart Home Repair and Reconstruction Grants. These Grants would cover the difference between reimbursements received and the amount of loss suffered by the homeowner. For example, if a homeowner that suffered $110,000 of damage has already received $50,000 from FEMA and her insurance company, she may be eligible for an additional $60,000 grant for qualified repairs under this program. Repair and rehabilitation may be required to meet green building standards and to improve energy efficiency, where applicable.
- Recreate NY Smart Home Resilience Grants – $259 million: A homeowner whose partially damaged property is located in the 100-year flood plain or whose property located outside of the floodplain was substantially damaged may be eligible for funding to support mitigation projects that reduce the risk of future damage to their homes. Projects supported by the grants will make these homes significantly less vulnerable to future storm damage, and will save owners substantially through lower floodinsurance premiums. In most cases, the grants will cover the full cost of such mitigation that has not been covered by other assistance. Building mitigation may be required to meet green building standards and to improve energy efficiency, where applicable.
- Recreate NY Smart Home Buyout Program – $171 million: Certain areas are at high risk for repeated flooding, causing damage to homes and risking the lives of residents and emergency responders. To reduce those risks and provide residents with an opportunity to leave their properties, New York State will offer voluntary Buyouts for homes that were:
- substantially damaged inside the 500-year flood plain, or
- located within designated buyout areas where damage occurred and where property may be susceptible to future damage due to sea level rise and other factors. These enhanced buyout areas will be selected in consultation with county and local government officials.
- In very high risk areas, there will be a prohibition on rebuilding and these areas will be used as buffer zones. Under the States proposal, and subject to approval by HUD, re-development of property outside of the100-year floodplain that is acquired through a buyout would be permitted, so long as the new structure is built to mitigate future flood impact. Homeowners will be notified if they are eligible for a buyout after HUD has approved this plan.
Homeowners eligible for a buyout will receive the full pre-storm fair market value for their home up to the FHA loan limit. An incentive of up to 5% will also be offered to families that relocate within their home county or borough.
Multi-family Housing: $124 Million:
- Small Multi-Family Repair and Reconstruction Grants – $31 million: Grants will be available to help repair rehabilitate and/or reconstruct 3 -7 unit properties that have suffered storm damage. In all cases, such grants will cover those losses that are not compensated by other sources. Repair and rehabilitation may be required to meet green building standards and to improve energy efficiency, where applicable.
- Small Multi-Family Mitigation Grants – $62 million: Grants will be available for 3 -7 unit properties located in the 100-year flood plain to support mitigation projects that reduce the risk of future damage. To receive grants under this program, property owners for rental properties will be required to rent a minimum of 51% of the units in the property to New Yorkers with low- and moderate-incomes. In all cases, such grants will cover the costs of such mitigation that are not compensated by other sources. Building mitigation may be required to meet green building standards and to improve energy efficiency, where applicable.
- Large Multi-family Mitigation Grants – $31 million: Multifamily housing property owners, with property containing 8 or more units, are expected to maintain appropriate insurance coverage that will compensate them for storm-related damages. Recognizing that such owners may not invest in mitigation-related projects on their own due to the up-front costs involved, New York State proposes to provide incentives to encourage them to take measures that reduce risks for New Yorkers living in their properties. Mitigation grants may be made available for select projects that demonstrably improve the building’s resilience against future storms, such as moving electrical systems from basements to higher levels inside the building. Eligibility is limited to buildings that have incurred damage from Sandy and are located within the 100-year floodplain. Individual building grants will be subject to a cap for each building. Building mitigation may be required to meet green building standards and to improve energy efficiency, where applicable.
Superstorm Sandy had a profoundly adverse effect on the New York State economy, and has harmed thousands of small businesses. In addition, small businesses impacted by both Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee continue to face needs resulting from these storms. The State proposes to use $415 million to help businesses replace or repair lost or damaged inventory and equipment, repair and mitigate damaged facilities, and cover working capital needs.
Bringing Back Business: $415 million
- Small Business Grants – $233 million: New York State will direct grant funds to help businesses, including farming and agricultural operations, and non-profits that suffered physical damage or inventory loss, as a result of Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, or Tropical Storm Lee. Grants of up to $50,000 to cover eligible, uncompensated losses are proposed to enable an affected business to purchase or repair needed equipment, repair or rebuild facilities that were damaged or destroyed in the storm, and/or provide the working capital necessary to sustain and grow the business. The State may extend grants up to a total grant amount of $100,000 to businesses that suffered physical damage and are at risk of closure or significant employment loss without an increase in grant size. Special Business Mitigation Grants of up to $100,000 are also proposed to cover expenses such as installing back-up generators or elevating key equipment, to help prevent damage to these businesses in future disasters.
- Small Business Loans – $130 million: New York State will create a low-interest loan program to help small businesses, including farming and agricultural operations, and non-profits that are at risk because they suffered losses of inventory, or physical assets as a result of the storm. Loans of up to $1 million may be available to help these businesses purchase or repair needed equipment, repair and rebuild facilities that were damaged or destroyed in the storm, and/or provide the working capital necessary to sustain and grow the business. Loans of higher amounts may be offered to eligible businesses that are at risk of closure or significant employment loss. Terms will be flexible, with interest rates held below 2% for borrowers.
- Business Consulting, Mentoring, & Other Services – $3 million: New York State will create an online network to facilitate connections between consultants and business practitioners who are willing to provide consulting and mentoring services to small businesses hit hard by the storm. Up to $3 million will be used to build the network and support the providers of the consulting and mentoring services. Such services may include financial management, real estate, marketing, legal, and industry-specific assistance.
- Coastal Fishing Industry Recovery Program –$20 million: Coastal fishing supports thousands of jobs in New York State. Superstorm Sandy caused significant damage to the fisheries along New York’s coastline, and while these fisheries will also be eligible to participate in the other small business assistance programs announced today, the industry is subject to unique considerations. To help this vital industry recover, New York State will create a targeted program to support grants of up to $50,000 available to affected businesses. These grants would cover otherwise eligible, uncompensated losses and help the industry prepare now for the upcoming fishing season.
- Seasonal Tourism Industry Recovery Program— $30 million: While these seasonal tourism businesses will also be eligible to participate in the other small business assistance programs announced today, seasonal small businesses in coastal and riverine communities require an immediate injection of support to ensure that they can reopen and operate in time for the upcoming summer season. Accordingly, the State seeks to provide grants of up to $50,000 to eligible businesses in this industry. The grants will cover otherwise eligible, uncompensated losses and working capital needs to help them prepare for the coming season.
New York State will create a dedicated infrastructure bank to help coordinate infrastructure development and investment across the disaster region. An initial capitalization of $20 million from the first allocation of CDBG-DR funds will be combined with State funds and committed to financing eligible infrastructure projects that apply for assistance through the Bank. The Bank will benefit New York by introducing a centralized approach to infrastructure related decision making rather than a project-by-project, agency specific process. The focus of the Bank’s investments will be on projects that increase the resiliency of the area’s infrastructure to withstand future threats or provide redundancy of critical systems. It is expected that the Bank will be funded with up to $200 million dollars through subsequent allocation rounds or such other amount to be jointly determined with HUD.
The Bank will take several steps to carry out these goals, including developing a system for prioritizing infrastructure projects and initiatives, providing a centralized approach to the State’s infrastructure planning process, managing State recovery funds for infrastructure and other sources of capital, negotiating opportunities for private sector investment in infrastructure and financing approved projects. The planning processes and expertise of the New York Works Task Force will be embedded into the Bank’s functions.
The Bank may make use of funds from several sources, including federally allocated recovery funds, diverted or created revenue, proceeds from the sale of long-term debt and credit enhancements with other state entities. In addition, the Bank will work with both public and private investors to raise funds to finance infrastructure developments. An advantage that the Bank will have is the ability to combine several sources of funds (e.g., Federal funds with private funds) to finance projects as effectively as possible. The Bank will showcase potential projects to engage the private sector in opportunities for investment in infrastructure.
COMMUNITY RECONSTRUCTION ZONES PROGRAM
New York State will establish the Community Reconstruction Zone (CRZ) program to facilitate community-driven planning to rebuild and revitalize severely damaged communities. The State anticipates allocating approximately $25 million from this first allocation to provide planning grants to communities that suffered community-wide impacts. Later allocations will be used to implement final CRZ plans. The planning grants will facilitate the retention of outside experts as consultants to a participating community’s planning committee, as well as the completion of critical studies to determine the key vulnerabilities and needs of the community. The State will provide information and guidance to the committees to assist them in identifying and using such outside resources effectively and efficiently. It is anticipated that the CRZ program will be funded up to $500 million or such amount to be jointly determined with HUD.
RESILIENCE RETROFIT FUND FOR CRITICAL FACILITIES
Energy-related mitigation is critical for essential services facilities including, in particular, hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities for vulnerable populations. Many essential services facilities did not have backup power systems or had ineffective backup systems that failed during the storm. As a result of this, numerous facilities had to evacuate patients which posed a greater risk to those patients than allowing them to remain in place during the storm.
To address this critical need, New York State will establish the Resilience and Retrofit Fund. The State anticipates allocating approximately $30 million from this first allocation of CDBG-DR funding to provide credit enhancement or leverage for private-sector financing of energy-related mitigation projects.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said 141 homeowners in storm-ravaged Oakwood Beach will participate in a state program, in which the state will buy their homes at pre-storm values.
(AP) — A Staten Island neighborhood where three people died during Superstorm Sandy will be the first to get state-sponsored home buyouts.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined the planned program during a visit to the borough on Monday.
In remarks made as part of a statewide tour following up on his State of the State address, Mr. Cuomo discussed efforts to recover from the devastating late October storm, including plans to rebuild with mitigation measures in place to avoid future damage.
“Let’s also recognize that there are some places that Mother Nature owns,” Mr. 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.
“I want to be there for people and communities who want to say, ‘I’m going to give this parcel back to Mother Nature.’”
Oakwood Beach, a low-lying oceanfront neighborhood, is one of those areas, the governor said.
“It’s been damaged time and time again,” he said. “It is in a situation that is very vulnerable.”
The neighborhood was swamped with about 12 feet of water during the Oct. 29 storm, which did damage in at least 10 states but hit New York and New Jersey the hardest. Several homes were lifted off their foundations and dumped, in pieces, into the marshland that surrounds the streets. Others were inundated where they stood, including those of Leonard Montalto and John Filipowicz Sr. and his 20-year-old son, John Filipowicz Jr.
The three were among the 23 people killed on Staten Island, which accounted for more than half the 43 deaths in New York City attributed to the storm.
The tightly packed streets of Oakwood Beach were first populated in the 1930s with wooden beach bungalows. Most of those structures were later converted to year-round homes, while some were replaced with larger dwellings.
But the community has repeatedly flooded, especially since 1992, when a nor’easter washed away a berm that had served to hold back the waves. Residents fought for years to have the berm rebuilt and other flood mitigation efforts put in place. Some measures, like a bulkhead that burned in a brush fire, were damaged or destroyed before Sandy. Others were simply overwhelmed by the amount of water pushed ashore by the giant storm, which hit at high tide during a full moon.
Today, the neighborhood remains depopulated, with just a handful of residents back in their houses.
The Democratic governor said 141 homeowners from the area have asked the state for buyouts. A map provided by the governor’s office outlines a buyout area that encompasses about 200 homes.
The area contains the most concentrated group of homeowners in the state seeking buyouts.
The program, which the governor said he would like to make available to other communities, calls for the state to pay 100% of the pre-storm value for the homes. Residents who move elsewhere on Staten Island will be eligible for an additional 5% bonus. A 10% bonus would be made available for homeowners who are vacating property in designated highly vulnerable flood areas.
The state would continue to own the properties, which would be developed for recreational use, Mr. Cuomo said.
Joseph Tirone, who leads a neighborhood committee seeking the buyouts, was among five Oakwood Beach homeowners who met with Mr. Cuomo and his aides. He said the governor’s intention is to have everyone bought out by the end of the year.
For many from the neighborhood, the buyout will be a mixed blessing.
“It will be bittersweet when it comes to fruition,” said Mr. Montalto’s 55-year-old sister, Patty Snyder, who moved to Oakwood Beach as an 8-year-old. “None of us were planning on leaving the area.”
Though her brother died, her daughter, grandchildren and other family members escaped.
“We’re always going to be in harm’s way,” Ms. Snyder said. “It’s more than likely the only solution for that area.”
STATEN ISLAND, NY — A plan for storm-weary Staten Islanders, whose homes have been ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, to sell their residences to the government is definitely a go, according to local and community representatives.
“The buyout is happening,” said Michael Arvanites, deputy chief of staff for state Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn), to a crowd of 200 people Wednesday night inside the St. Charles School, Oakwood.
“Of course the $64,000 question, or, if you own a half million dollar house, the $500,000 question is when?” Arvanites quipped.
He couldn’t say that for sure, but noted “it’s going to be very soon.” Arvanites said the money is likely to be included in the state’s latest fiscal budget due on April l.
Recently, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed spending up to $400 million to purchase homes damaged by Sandy. The goal: Assist suffering homeowners and turn portions of the coast line into either natural barriers or public parklands.
Joseph Tirone Jr., head of the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee, said the buyout plan aims to purchase homes at pre-market sale prices with the federal government paying 75 percent and the state 25 percent.
The committee currently includes 165 homeowners, with 133 looking to accept the buyout, said Tina Downer, who is also with the committee.
Tirone hopes once the plan is announced buyout letters would follow and homes bought out by the end of the year. “But we won’t know until it gets announced,” he said.
He said that once homeowners/businessowners have the buyout letter that letter will be as if the they already have the collateral to move forward. “It tells your lender you sold your home to a bona fide cash buyer.”
But key to making sure future processes go smoothly, he added, is for home and businessowners to keep their credit scores in good standing. He added their are numerous resources out there as well as assistance from lenders and elected officials that help people who are having problems with mortgage or other payments.
Tirone encouraged other communities to organize as well to take advantage of the resources available.
News of a buyout plan was cheered by Joseph Bello, 30, who lived in Oakwood Beach and has been paying both his mortgage and rental costs. He said dealing with both his mortgage lender and flood insurer has been “an absolute nightmare.”
Sheila and Dominic Traina are also looking forward to a buyout. “We can’t afford to live on Staten Island anymore,” said Mrs. Traina, who had plans to follow her husband into retirement. “Living off of Social Security is not an option now.”
Hurricane Sandy final blow: Staten Island neighborhood abandons all hope as residents seek buyout BY MATT LYSIAK AND GREG B. SMITH
Eighty percent of the 183 homeowners in a six-block section of Oakwood Beach have banded together to ask Gov. Cuomo to buy them out — all of them at once.
DEBBIE EGAN-CHIN/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Residents of Fox Beach ask the government to buy them out of their houses at pre-storm rates and use the land as a barrier to protect the rest of Staten Island from future storm damage.
They’ve had enough.
On the far end of Staten Island, on a vulnerable patch of marshland, a collection of modest bungalows was hit so hard by Hurricane Sandy that the entire neighborhood is getting ready to pack up and leave.
Eighty percent of the 183 homeowners in a six-block section of Oakwood Beach have banded together to ask Gov. Cuomo to buy them out — all of them at once.
“I’m done,” declared a heartbroken Joe Monte, a city worker who has lived for 22 years on Fox Beach Ave. “I can’t handle it no more. I can’t go near this home. I can’t see this home. It’s affected my family. Just get us out of there. I want to feel normal again.”
Monte and most of his neighbors are banking on Cuomo’s promise to buy out homeowners in extremely vulnerable Sandy-affected areas. Cuomo wants to build buffer zones to absorb the high water of future storms.
New York’s Governor Cuomo says the lesson of Superstorm Sandy is the vulnerability of coastal development to climate change. Instead of rebuilding damaged properties, he wants to buy them up and restore their natural condition. Will homeowners and developers go along? What about developments in the Carolinas, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico and the coastlands of the Pacific Ocean? Also, a meteor crashes to the Earth in Russia’s Ural Mountains, and mixed reviews for Tesla’s electric car.
Banner image: Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast, taken during a search and rescue mission on October 30, 2012.
NY1 VIDEO: Some Island residents were concerned Friday that the incoming snowstorm would overflow a nearby estuary, which spilled out into their homes during Hurricane Sandy.
It is, in concept, a splendid idea. It needs federal approval, and there are many details to be worked out. But assuming enough homeowners go along, it offers a promising approach to minimizing future damage from the hundred-year storms that seem to be arriving with increasing frequency in this age of climate change.
The governor’s plan would pay the full prestorm value of a house to owners who agreed to sell, with a 5 percent bonus to those who relocated in their home county. The plan would be voluntary; a homeowner could simply refuse to participate, and presumably elect to rebuild, despite higher insurance rates that doing so would entail.
The Cuomo administration estimates that 10,000 or so homes sit squarely in the danger zone, but, only a fraction — 10 percent to 15 percent — of these owners might actually participate in this program. The plan would not cover high-end properties like a wreck of a beachfront house in the Rockaways that is now on sale for $3 million “as is.” But the price tag could go as high as $300,000 per dwelling, assuming the Department of Housing and Urban Development approves the plan.
For those who chose to stay, the administration would offer another option: grants to help owners flood-proof their homes. That could include rebuilding a house on or near the beach on giant pylons at least 2 feet above the projected flood level, which could mean 15 feet or more above ground level — a costly prospect.
On the face of it, the buyouts look like a good deal for homeowners — certainly far better than waiting around for federal help or for private insurance companies to pay enough for repairs. Not that they will be an easy sell. In The Times article by Thomas Kaplan describing Mr. Cuomo’s idea, a Rockaway resident whose basement was flooded was quoted as saying, “Nobody wants to leave here. Where would I go? To Astoria? To Brooklyn? No!”
New Yorkers and others in the Northeast — officials and residents alike — are still a long way from figuring out how to protect the shoreline from rising waters and stronger storms. But buying damaged properties and returning them to their natural state, as Mr. Cuomo proposes, is one of the best ideas to come along.
Staten Island lawmakers back Cuomo proposal to buy and demolish homes destroyed by Sandy By Tom Wrobleski
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Give the shoreline back to Mother Nature.
Staten Island lawmakers on Monday said they backed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ambitious proposal to buy and demolish homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy and permanently preserve the land as underveloped coastline.
“Some portions of Staten Island should be ceded back to Mother Nature,” said City Councilman James Oddo (R-Mid-Island/Brooklyn). “It’s good to hear a clear-throated statement that this is going to be one of the tools in the toolbox.”
Under the $400 million proposal, residents with homes that suffered significant damage would be offered the pre-storm value of their homes to move elsewhere, according to a report in The New York Times.
The purchase plan would require federal approval, since it would be paid for using a portion of the $51 billion disaster relief package approved by Congress last week.
Cuomo presented his plan to federal officials in Washington on Friday.
Borough President James Molinaro said he’d worked with Cuomo’s office, sending maps of neighborhoods that might be right for buyouts, including storm-damaged homes as well as dwellings in wetlands.
“It’s a great idea,” Molinaro said. “It would increase the safety of the houses that remain, give them some room out there.”
Oddo said Oakwood Beach is to his mind the “epicenter” of where the buyouts should be offered.
Joseph Tirone, who leads the neighborhood committee to work toward a buyout, said more than 150 homeowners have indicated they would sell.
“Those make a lot of sense to purchase for open space,” Oddo said. “It’s a strategic, common-sense application of a buyout, which is going to redefine the shoreline.”
He added that he thought the total number of homes that would eventually be bought out would be less than 500, but Molinaro said the number could be higher.
Oddo also said there was concern that some people in the worst-hit areas might want to stay, even if the vast majority of their neighbors want to get out.
“If you buy 150 homes, can you really leave three standing?” Oddo said. “That’s a concern.”
Samantha Langello bought her Oakwood Beach home five years ago, and has seen damage from storms every year. Sandy submerged her entire first floor.
Ms. Langello acknowledged that it was her choice to live in the neighborhood but said her sister had lived three doors away for several years and never had a problem.
“You just don’t think of New York as a place for hurricanes to hit,” she said. “I wasn’t even told until the closing that I was in Flood Zone A.”
Ms. Langello sees a buyout as perhaps the only way to avoid financial ruin.
“We have no intention of going back, whether we get bought out or not,” she said. “It’s clearly not a safe place to live.”
“Certain neighborhoods on Staten Island — such as Oakwood Beach — lie in highly flood-prone areas, making them prime candidates for this type of program,” said Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn). “It simply doesn’t make sense for a homeowner to invest the funds to rebuild in a flood plain, knowing disaster could strike again.”
Under Cuomo’s plan, homeowners in more vulnerable areas or where an entire block agrees to move could be given bonuses in order to sell out.
The land could be turned into sand dunes, wetlands or other natural buffers, according to The Times. Other pieces of land could be turned into parks.
The Times says federal officials appeared receptive to the idea. Cuomo said he hopes to announce details about the program in the next two weeks.
“The people have spoken,” said Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-South Shore). “They want to voluntarily offer their homes up. You can’t fight Mother Nature. In some of these areas, she’s winning these wars.”
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-East Shore/Brooklyn) said her office had received about 35 calls from people asking about buyouts in Oakwood Beach, New Dorp Beach and Midland Beach.
“It can’t come soon enough,” she said. “People are ready to move on. They need the funds to do so.”
The Times said that Cuomo would offer owners the pre-storm full market value of their houses in the 100-year flood plain that were substantially damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
There could be 10,000 or so of those homes.
Homeowners who chose to relocate within their home county would receive a 5 percent bonus above the market value, as part of a government effort to encourage them to stay nearby.
State officials said they were planning for the possibility that 10 to 15 percent of those eligible would take the buyout.
Residents of more vulnerable areas would be permitted to sell their homes even if the homes suffered little, or possibly even no, damage from the hurricane, and the state would pay them an additional 10 percent bonus above market value to sweeten the deal, The Times said.
In a few dozen blocks located in areas of extreme risk, the state would offer another 10 percent bonus if every homeowner on the block agreed to sell.
A spokesman for a storm task force created by President Barack Obama in December said it’s too soon to say whether New York will be allowed to proceed.
– Associated Press material was used in this report.
DISASTER: Staten Island homes like this one in Oakwood would be eligible for buyouts.
ALBANY — They want to flee Mother Nature’s wrath on Staten Island — but not in Long Beach.
Residents in the Oakwood Beach and Fox Beach sections of Staten Island overwhelmingly want a buyout Gov. Cuomo is proposing for victims of superstorm Sandy, the island’s state senators said yesterday.
But residents of hard-hit Long Beach want to stay put, according to their assemblyman, Harvey Weisenberg.
Cuomo is pitching a $400 million plan to buy out Sandy victims’ homes for pre-storm value — and in some cases more — so the land could be converted to dunes, marshlands and other natural barriers as protection against future storms.
Sen. Diane Savino (D-SI) said 155 of the 165 homeowners in the two hard-hit Staten Island enclaves delivered signatures to her office asking to participate in the program.
“Mother Nature wants her property back in some areas,” Savino said. “This is an area that quite frankly is ripe for this type of hazard mitigation.”
But she and Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-SI) said it’s not necessarily for everyone — though Rep. Michael Grimm (R-SI) suggested most would be better off to take the money and run.
He noted those neighborhoods “lie in highly flood-prone areas. It simply doesn’t make sense for a homeowner to invest the funds to rebuild in a flood plain, knowing disaster could strike again.”
The buyouts would be paid for with federal disaster relief funds and would need the support of federal officials.
Some of the yellow demolition machines sit idle in now-vacant lots. Some are busy filling trucks with debris. The nearby homes that aren’t at some stage of being torn down in the Oakwood Beach section of Staten Island may soon meet the same fate. At least that’s what more than 130 of the residents in the area are hoping for.
Members of the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee are pressing city and state officials to help them move out of the flood zone. They got a boost on Monday when Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office confirmed that it was setting aside $400 million to buyout homeowners in areas vulnerable to future storms, such as Oakwood Beach.
“If you could wave a wand—a magic wand—and you said, everything’s back to normal tomorrow, you’d still have close to 133 [home owners] who want to leave because they just can’t put up with it anymore,” said Joseph Tirone, Jr., who leads the buyout committee.
Many of the homes in the neighborhood still have red stickers on their door—they remain uninhabitable. The interior of some of the homes are stripped down to bare studs. Others, like that of Joe Monte, have mold growing up the wall and mud still covering the floors.
Monte says he’s been through dozens of storms and numerous evacuations. But then Sandy sent a 10-foot storm surge through his home. He’s thankful Cuomo is taking steps to buy out homeowners like him.
“This is no lottery ticket,” Monte said. “I’m losing money and I really don’t care, because my wife is alive and my children are alive.”
Joseph Tirone Jr., a homeowner, leads the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee on Staten Island. “These people have been so beat up,” said Mr. Tirone. “It’s just gotten to be too much.”
Published: February 3, 2013 308 Comments
ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing to spend as much as $400 million to purchase homes wrecked by Hurricane Sandy, have them demolished and then preserve the flood-prone land permanently, as undeveloped coastline.
Karsten Moran for The New York Times
The foundation is all that remains of 45 Kissam Avenue on Staten Island. Many homes were irrevocably damaged during the storm and work crews have been demolishing what remains of them.
The purchase program, which still requires approval from federal officials, would be among the most ambitious ever undertaken, not only in scale but also in how Mr. Cuomo would be using the money to begin reshaping coastal land use. Residents living in flood plains with homes that were significantly damaged would be offered the pre-storm value of their houses to relocate; those in even more vulnerable areas would be offered a bonus to sell; and in a small number of highly flood-prone areas, the state would double the bonus if an entire block of homeowners agreed to leave.
The land would never be built on again. Some properties could be turned into dunes, wetlands or other natural buffers that would help protect coastal communities from ferocious storms; other parcels could be combined and turned into public parkland.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which swept through the region on Oct. 29, Mr. Cuomo has adamantly maintained that New York needs to reconsider the way it develops its coast. He has repeatedly spoken, in blunt terms, about the consequences of climate change, noting that he has responded to more extreme weather in his first two years as governor than his father, Mario M. Cuomo, did in his 12 years in the job. Last month, in his State of the State address, he raised the prospect of home buyouts, declaring “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns.”
“She may only visit once every few years,” Mr. Cuomo said, “but she owns the parcel and when she comes to visit, she visits.”
Mr. Cuomo’s proposal comes as lawmakers, disaster experts and residents debate what steps New York should take to fortify itself against extreme weather. The Cuomo administration has enlisted experts to study a range of approaches, from installing storm barriers with movable gates to returning oyster beds to some of the state’s shoreline.
Any reshaping of the coastline will be not only costly, but also difficult. Many residents of shoreline communities in New York City and on Long Island live in homes that have been passed along from generation to generation, and are not eager to hear government officials suggest that they move elsewhere, even voluntarily.
“There is a loyalty here,” said Harvey Weisenberg, a longtime lifeguard in Long Beach, N.Y., who represents the storm-tossed community in the State Assembly, as a Democrat. “There’s an expression: we have the sand in our shoes. Once you’re here, you never want to leave, and if you do leave, you want to come back.”
Aides to Mr. Cuomo met with federal officials in Washington on Friday to present their hurricane response plan, including the proposed buyout program, which would be paid for using a portion of the $51 billion disaster relief package approved by Congress last week.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has financed the purchase of homes in disaster-stricken areas for two decades. Hundreds of property owners in upstate New York decided to pursue buyouts after Tropical Storms Irene and Lee, though no sales have been finalized, according to state emergency management officials.
Mr. Cuomo is proposing a far broader program for homeowners affected by Hurricane Sandy, using money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, an agency Mr. Cuomo once headed.
The buyout program requires approval from the federal housing agency. The governor’s office said federal officials seemed receptive to their proposal, and that Mr. Cuomo hoped the program would be approved and that he could announce details in the next two weeks.
A spokesman for the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which President Obama created in December, said Sunday that it is too soon to say whether the state will be allowed to proceed.
“It’s premature to speculate on whether this particular plan would be approved,” the spokesman, Brendan C. Gilfillan, said by e-mail. Mr. Gilfillan said that the federal housing agency needed some time because “prior to Friday, New York state had been slower to share its plans” than New York City and New Jersey; the Cuomo administration said it is in regular communication with federal officials about its plans, and believes it is moving more quickly than other jurisdictions.
For the 10,000 or so homes in the 100-year flood plain that were substantially damaged by Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Cuomo would offer owners the pre-storm full market value of their houses. Homeowners who chose to relocate within their home county would receive a 5 percent bonus above the market value, as part of a government effort to encourage them to stay nearby. State officials said they were planning for the possibility that 10 to 15 percent of those eligible would take the buyout.
Residents of more vulnerable areas would receive a further enticement: they would be allowed to sell their homes even if the homes suffered little, or possibly even no, damage from the hurricane, and the state would pay them an additional 10 percent bonus, above market value, to sweeten the deal.
In a few dozen blocks located in areas of extreme risk, the state would offer another 10 percent bonus if every homeowner on the block agreed to sell. Local officials would be expected to determine how best to use the new open space, though they would not be allowed to build on it.
Lawmakers from storm-ravaged neighborhoods said they welcomed the program, though, in most cases, they expected a relatively small number of residents to participate. They said buyouts could appeal to residents worried about rising flood insurance premiums, as well as those who have listed their homes for sale in recent months, only to find potential buyers willing to pay only a fraction of what they might have offered before the storm. (The program is not targeted at the most expensive waterfront homes; it would cap the payments for houses at around the median home value in a given neighborhood.)
On the eastern shore of Staten Island, virtually an entire neighborhood, the Fox Beach section of Oakwood Beach, has decided it wants to move. In the neighborhood, which has long been tormented by routine flooding as well as brush fires, 133 of 165 households have signed up to take a buyout if one is offered, according to Joseph Tirone Jr., the leader of the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee.
“These people have been so beat up,” said Mr. Tirone, a real estate investor who owns a bungalow on Fox Beach Avenue that flooded during the storm. “It’s just gotten to be too much.”
Another committee member, Tina Downer, said, simply, “We don’t have the fight enough to stay any more.” Ms. Downer said her house, set about 300 yards from the shoreline, was inundated by a storm surge of at least 13 feet, and said she has now concluded that the neighborhood should “return to nature and do what it was intended to do, which is to be a sponge.”
But in the Rockaways, Cynthia Koulouris, a resident for 41 years, said she was not going anywhere, even though her basement flooded and her neighbor’s house burned down during the storm.
“Nobody wants to leave here,” she said. “Where would I go? To Astoria? To Brooklyn? No!”
State Senator Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., a Democrat who represents Howard Beach, Broad Channel and the Rockaways, said that in his district of more than 300,000 people, perhaps three had asked him for information about selling their homes to the government. “These are residents that chose to live by the water,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere.”
A version of this article appeared in print on February 4, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Cuomo Is Seeking To Curb Building In Flooded Area.
Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy destroyed his home, Joe Monte stood up at a meeting of Staten Island storm survivors and implored them to give up on any hopes of rebuilding. “I personally don’t want no bleach, no sheetrock, that’s not what we’re here for,” he said. “That area was meant for doing what it did a hundred years ago: to take water.”
Monte was talking about Oakwood Beach, a neighborhood that sustained terrible damage in the storm, and the meeting marked the first attempt by Monte and other residents to rally their neighbors around the idea of getting the government to pay pre-market value for their destroyed and damaged houses.
Some in the crowd were skeptical that the government would deliver that help, but on Monday, The New York Times reported that Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the idea.
Monte said he wasn’t suprised. “There’s nothing else you can do down there,” he said. The neighborhood was built on marshland and has flooded repeatedly over the years. “Nature’s taking it back,” Monte said.
According to The New York Times, Cuomo would be willing to spend as much as $400 million to purchase homes destroyed by Sandy throughout the state. If the federal government approves of the plan, the homes would then be demolished and the land would revert back to undeveloped coastline.
Over the last 20 years, as smaller storms have repeatedly battered the homes of Oakwood Beach, residents have complained that officials have been slow to respond. For decades, the Army Corps of Engineers has been researching a long-term solution for the neighborhood and other parts of the Staten Island waterfront, but the study has proceeded in fits and starts, with federal funding occasionally drying up.
Meantime, residents like Monte have come to believe that the only solution is getting out. “If a storm comes between now and whenever, it could be worse than it was with Sandy,” he said.
Monte, who owned a construction company for two decades, spent 11 years renovating his Oakwood Beach home, which he described as an investment for his retirement.
Yet unlike some residents, he expressed no ambivalence about the prospect of leaving. “I can’t stand looking at the place,” he said. “I avoid it as much as possible.”
What worries Monte is the timing of the government’s plan. If the buyout doesn’t happen soon, he said, he’ll be hard-pressed to shoulder the double burden of the mortgage on the house that he fled and the rent at the Brooklyn apartment where he and his family took refuge.
“How do you pay mortgage and pay rent at the same time?” he said. “If they aren’t wrapped in six months to a year at most, do we fall into another foreclosure situation like we had three or four years ago? What do we do here?”
Another Oakwood Beach resident, Pedro Correa, who rode out the storm on a floating roof, echoed Monte’s concerns about timing. “There’s still a long road,” he said. “The federal government has to approve the plan. There’s nothing set in stone.”
At the meeting back in November, Correa was one of the skeptics who expressed doubt that the government would come to the neighborhood’s rescue, and he still has trouble believing the government will make good on such an expensive proposal.
“I did the math,” he said. “There are 161 houses in the neighborhood. It comes out to $50 million total. I don’t feel confident they’re going to pay $50 million.”
Unlike Monte, Correa found himself returning again and again to the ruins of his home, which the storm swept into marsh. For a while he entertained the possibility that he could somehow rebuild it. But he gave up that dream many weeks ago, and on Friday, workers built a road through the marsh and pulled out the last of the remains.
“I think that was a big closure for us,” he said. “There’s nothing to go back to now. I can’t put on waders and go through the stuff. It’s over now.”
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - Superstorm Sandy was a cruel, viscous monster.
“The entire house was just covered in sewage, in mud,” said Andrew Carro of Oakwood Beach, Staten Island.
He and his wife Julie lost everything. Their home shifted and the roof caved in.
“It looked like someone picked up the house, shook it around with water inside, and just dropped it,” he said.
- Stories From Main Street: S.I. Sandy Victim Getting New Custom Guitar From Brooklyn Man
- WCBS 880 reporter Sean Adams has…
Some possessions had tremendous sentimental value.
“My guitars – I have four guitars. All my guitars are gone,” Andrew told WCBS 880 reporter Sean Adams.
But someone came to his rescue.
“Not everyone can afford to buy one of my guitars. So, I thought I would give a guitar to somebody who lost one in the storm,” said Tony Costa of Midwood, Brooklyn.
He works in banking, but in his spare time, he tinkers in his garage, building guitars.
“A lot of people I know lost a lot in Hurricane Sandy. My mom’s house was flooded. So after helping with physical cleanup, I just felt like I could do more and I have a skill that not everybody has,” he said. “I know it seems trivial, but a guitar means a lot if you’re a guitar player.”
Costa posted his offer online and Julie responded, explaining how her husband would strum his acoustic to lull their infant son to sleep.
“After reading all of the other entries, I felt like I connected with the guy,” Costa said.
“When I got the call from Tony, you know, and he told me what he was gonna to do, I was just like a little kid again,” Andrew said.
A custom-made Costa guitar starts at $2,700. But this one would be free, with only the best materials.
“Wood from Mexico called Ziricote. It’s exotic wood. It’s kind of expensive, but I told him he could have whatever he wanted,” Costa said.
He said that some people he knows from various guitar building forums decided to donate some parts, including the tuners and neck.
There will be a piece of Sandy in this guitar, too.
“Over here is a piece of tree that was blown down by Hurricane Sandy and I’m going to use it to make some of the decoration on the guitar,” Costa told Adams.
It takes 200 hours to sand, shape, bend, glue, and lacquer the wood, but Costa said it’s the least he can do.
“To someone who doesn’t play, it seems kind of frivolous, but it’s a real big part of some people’s lives,” he said.
The guitar should be ready by July.
Andrew Carro has struggled with insurance adjusters, engineers, and FEMA. But at the end of the day, he said ordinary people – neighbors and perfect strangers alike – have restored his faith in humanity.
“People like Tony, we need more people like Tony in the world, honestly. I can’t be more grateful for the guy,” Andrew said.
The governor wants Sandy victims along the coasts to sell their homes, get a check and no longer live where ‘Mother Nature doesn’t want you.’ He expects many families to stay because the rebuilding has already begun in many areas.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo thinks his plan for Sandy victims is a win, with those who had their homes damaged receiving money and flood-prone areas being free of future victims.
ALBANY — Gov. Cuomo wants Hurricane Sandy victims who live along the coast to consider rebuilding their homes on stilts or selling their houses to the state and relocating.
“At one point, you have to say maybe Mother Nature doesn’t want you here. Maybe she’s trying to tell you something,” Cuomo said in a phone interview with the Daily News Editorial Board.
Cuomo said he hopes more Sandy victims will choose to have the state buy them out rather than rebuild in areas that are at risk of future storm damage.
It would relieve the government of having to pay to rebuild the same houses multiple times.
“You have to be sensitive,” he said. “I’m not saying anybody should sell, but you should think about it. And if you want to sell, we’ll have an option.”
JB NICHOLAS/SPLASH NEWS
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on victims of Hurricane Sandy on the South Shore to sell their homes.
The state will offer “fair market” appraisals of people’s properties that he expects will be “on the generous side.”
“We give you a check and you move on,” he said. “We take the property.”
‘Under Cuomo’s plan, the properties would stay “fallow” — with nothing built on it.
One problem, he said, is some of the rebuilding has begun. Owners of those homes likely would not agree to the buyout plan.
Money for the buyouts — and rebuilding homes on stilts — would come from the state’s portion of a $50.7 billion Sandy bill awaiting approval in the U.S. Senate, he said.
Under Cuomo’s plan, the state would have to decide what to do with the bought-out properties. One possibility is giving them to the city or state parks departments.
Another question is who would pay the real estate taxes that would otherwise be lost, he said.
Cuomo in his fiscal 2014 budget plan said he expects to spend $3.6 billion on Sandy rebuilding this year, with much more coming in future years.
SEA BRIGHT, N.J. (AP) — Superstorm Sandy, one of the nation’s costliest natural disasters, is giving new urgency to an age-old debate about whether areas repeatedly damaged by storms should be rebuilt, or whether it might be cheaper in the long run to buy out vulnerable properties and let nature reclaim them.
The difficulty in getting aid for storm victims through Congress — most of a $60 billion package could get final approval next week — highlights the hard choices that may have to be made soon across the country, where the federal, state and local governments all say they don’t have unlimited resources to keep writing checks when storms strike.
But the idea of abandoning a place that has been home for years is unthinkable for many.
“We’re not retreating,” said Dina Long, the mayor of Sea Bright, N.J., a chronically flooded spit of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Shrewsbury River only slightly wider than the length of a football field in some spots. Three-quarters of its 1,400 residents are still homeless and the entire business district was wiped out; only four shops have managed to reopen.
Despite a rock and concrete sea wall and pumping equipment in the center of town, Sea Bright floods repeatedly. It is the go-to spot for TV news trucks every time a storm roars up the coast. But as in many other storm-damaged communities, there is a fierce will to survive, to rebuild and to restore.
“Nobody has come to us and said we shouldn’t exist,” she said. “It is antithetical to the Jersey mindset, and particularly to the Sea Bright mindset. We’re known for being strong, for being resilient, for not backing down.”
The story is different in the Oakwood Beach section of Staten Island, N.Y., where despite 20 years of flood protection measures, Sandy’s 12- to 14-foot-storm surge inundated the community, forcing some residents to their attics or roofs to survive. Three people died.
“Building again and again in this very sensitive flood plain will only achieve the same results — flooding, and possibly untimely death,” homeowner Tina Downer told about 200 of her neighbors who gathered to discuss a potential buyout program last week. “It is not safe for anyone to live there.”
The problem has worsened in recent decades with an explosion of development near the nation’s shorelines. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that in 2003, approximately 153 million people — 53 percent of the nation’s population — lived in coastal counties, an increase of 33 million people since 1980. The agency forecasts 12 million more to join them by 2015.
Scientists say that putting so many people in the most vulnerable areas is a recipe for disaster.
Jon Miller, a professor of coastal engineering at New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of technology, said retreating from the most vulnerable areas makes scientific sense. But he adds that the things that were built there — beach clubs, boardwalks and amusement piers — give communities their character, and fuel tourism and business.
If buyouts did occur, he predicted they would happen in areas with lower property values because of the high cost of buying up prime coastal real estate. That could have the unintended consequence of placing the shore off-limits to all but the wealthy, he said.
“I grew up in Rahway and I remember the controversy when several properties along the Rahway River were bought out due to repetitive flood losses,” Miller said. “It was painful and caused dissension in the community.”
Residents feared not only being forced from their homes but also not getting enough money to purchase a suitable home in the same community, Miller said.
A 1988 Duke University shore protection study cited a nor’easter that occurred in Sea Bright four years earlier, causing $82 million in damages — about equal to the value of all the town’s buildings at the time.
“Clearly the economics of this situation dictate that Sea Bright is not worthy of salvation, although politics and other considerations may decide otherwise,” the study asserted. “The prudent management alternative in this community would be the gradual removal or relocation of the buildings.”
Talking about post-storm retreat is one thing; actually doing it has proven much harder.
After Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005, there was talk of abandoning some of the most flood-prone areas. But a proposal from a storm panel excluded the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East, a neighborhood long home to affluent and upper-middle-class black families, touching off an uproar that scuttled the plan.
More than seven years later, much of New Orleans is thriving: unemployment is relatively low, the tourism industry is healthy, the city is preparing to host a Super Bowl, and no neighborhood has been abandoned.
But not everyone has come back. As of July 2011, the Census Bureau estimated New Orleans’ population at 360,740, less than three-quarters its population in 2000. In the Lower 9th Ward, vacant lots and abandoned homes dominate the landscape, and four out of five residents who lived there before the storm have left.
The question of whether to rebuild or retreat touches many East Coast communities.
Westerly, R.I. recently got $1.1 million in federal money to buy eight low-lying properties near the Pawcatuck River that are frequently flooded. In North Carolina, some have called for deserting Highway 12 — the only land link between Hatteras Island and the mainland — in favor of a ferry system after Hurricane Irene and Sandy caused $14 million in damages. A state panel in Delaware found few affordable options as it considered what to do about seven Delaware Bay communities threatened by storms and rising sea levels.
Sea Bright is requiring homeowners to raise their rebuilt properties higher — as much as 17 feet above sea level in some cases — if they want to qualify for federal flood insurance.
Frank and Dee Kurzawa, whose home near the river took on 4 feet of water, could have to spend $30,000 to raise it. Yet they’re staying put, even if it’s a little higher than before.
“Even with the possibility of this happening again, we’re coming back,” Dee Kurzawa said. “We plan to pass this house on to our grandchildren.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie considers strategic retreat from some storm-damaged areas on the table “in a broad way,” but said he wants to leave the ultimate decisions to individual towns after giving them advice later this week on how to rebuild.
Part of a neighbor’s home broke loose and smashed through the wall of Karen Finkelstein’s Sea Bright home. She’s still “shell-shocked” in Sandy’s aftermath, but can’t see herself leaving.
“I want to see us come back, but with precautions in place,” she said. “You’re taking a risk by choosing to live in this area. But when it’s home to you, it’s really hard to leave the familiar place where your roots are.”
Associated Press writers Eileen AJ Connelly in Staten Island N.Y., Kevin McGill in New Orleans, Michelle Smith in Westerly, R.I., Martha Waggoner in Raleigh N.C. and Randall Chase in Dover, Del. contributed to this story.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
Many shorefront communities are determined to rebuild after superstorm Sandy. But residents of Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach want to pick up and leave instead.
Homeowners in a four-block portion there are pushing for a federal buyout of their homes. Out of 165 homes in the area, which dates to the 1920s, owners of 106 have signed a petition in favor of a buyout.
“Nobody wants to stay,” said Carlos Villalobos, a 63-year-old mailman and Oakwood Beach resident of 15 years. Damage from the Oct. 29 storm remained visible Thursday, with debris still lining the streets and homes shifted off their foundations. “It’s going to happen again. The place is a ghost town.”
The neighborhood’s initiative highlights a question that has lingered in the storm’s aftermath: whether coastal communities rocked by Sandy should rebuild at all. The idea of buyouts has recently gained support from state and federal officials. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his state of the state address this week, proposed a home-buyout program but didn’t specify how it would work.
“I’ve talked to homeowners who have dealt with serious floods three, four, five times over the past few years,” the governor said. “Many of them are saying “I don’t want to have to do it again.”
Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican from Staten Island, said various communities on the shore such as Midland Beach and Tottenville have expressed interest in getting buyouts. But Oakwood Beach is perhaps the best candidate because of its location. Under such programs, the land can’t be developed again.
“Literally, it is just surrounded by marshland,” he said, referring to the Bluebelt, or Staten Island’s storm-water drainage system, which borders many Oakwood homes. “When you look on a map, you realize instantly this is not an area where people should have been living,” he said.
Residents of the community are trying to gain support from local officials for a program paid for mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and run by the state. But state officials can’t act until municipalities make the request, a spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services said.
New York City has never participated in the program, but after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, about 80 other New York state communities requested that more than 950 properties be acquired, according to the state homeland security division. FEMA covers 75% of the buyouts while the state covers 25%.
The upstate town of Jay, located roughly half an hour from Lake Placid, expects to demolish 19 homes that suffered damage from Hurricane Irene under the program by spring.
“It’s a trying decision for the municipality,” said Randy Douglas, town supervisor and chairman of the Essex County board of supervisors. “We’re losing tax base. You worry about losing identity.” But he added, “We couldn’t continue to put people in harm’s way.”
The program’s history shows that not everyone who signs up to get their home bought out finds it easy to follow through. After a devastating 2010 flood in Nashville, the city received interest from 244 homes deemed eligible for a FEMA buyout, which is voluntary
But 41 homes ended up withdrawing, said Sonia Harvat, spokeswoman for Metro Water Services, the city’s water utility. Some said they had anticipated receiving more money while others decided they had fixed up their homes to the point that they’d stay, she said.
The buyouts, she said, aren’t a cure-all. “We really stressed that these property acquisitions and buyout programs would not make them whole again,” she said. But “some of these property owners were elderly,” she added. “It’s very difficult after an event like the one we had to put your home on the market. This gives them the opportunity to not deal with that type of stress.”
In New York City, talks of buyouts are preliminary. At an Oakwood Beach community meeting Thursday, members of the committee in favor of buyouts cautioned the process could take longer than a year. They also expressed concern about getting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support.
“We know that he’s shown himself as being disconnected to the community,” said Joe Tirone, a 55-year-old real-estate broker. He cited the mayor’s initial decision to press ahead with the New York City Marathon despite the devastation on Staten Island.
Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bloomberg, said in a statement, “The mayor is committed to working with each community on plans to help them recover and rebuild stronger and more resilient to future climate events.”
She added, “While it’s too early to know if a buyout option makes sense in certain cases, we’ll certainly consider it for those interested.”
Several residents said they were making basic repairs but holding off on major rebuilding in hopes of a buyout. The area remains largely desolate, with most residents living elsewhere. One house had a spray-painted message to deter looters: “House now booby trapped. Welcome.”
The decision to leave won’t be easy. Many homeowners have lived in Oakwood Beach for decades. The neighborhood was a summer retreat for residents until the 1950s, when people started to settle permanently, committee members said.
“I’m a displaced person,” said Joseph Szczesny, whose family has owned a home on Fox Beach Avenue, one of the streets where buyouts are being proposed, since 1956. “My heart and my roots are here.”
His house is littered with chunks of insulation, and Sandy buckled its floors. He said he rebuilt after a powerful storm in 1992. “I’ve been through it once,” he said. “This is my second time. I can’t do it again.”
“People should not be living here,” said Joseph Monte.
He was standing on the little piece of Staten Island he’s called home for 22 years, and arguing that it would be better if no one lived there at all.
“Turn this into what it should have been and what it was a 100 years ago, a natural area for the grounds to take the water,” he said.
Until Hurricane Sandy rendered it uninhabitable, Monte, who owned his own construction company for two decades, lived in a grey clapboard house in Fox Beach, a subsection of Oakwood Beach on Staten Island’s southeastern flank. In good times, it was a nice place to live, and some families lived there for generations, in low-slung bungalows with American flags, just a couple of blocks from the sea.
But the neighborhood has had its downsides. Brush fires are a big issue, thanks to all the tall grass that turns to kindling in dry weather. So is flooding, a perennial, worsening problem that has proven resistant to small-bore fixes like berms and floodgates.
In the aftermath of the last big hurricane, whose surges swept more than 10 feet of water through the neighborhood and killed three residents, that problem has begun to appear insurmountable.
Today, residents are banding together in an effort to convince the government that their neighborhood should go away. The people of Fox Beach—more than 60 percent of them, according to one homeowner’s count—want a buy-out.
“If they tell people, ‘Listen, you’re on your own, we’re not helping you, we’re not buying you out,’ you’re gonna see more deaths here,” said Neil Filipowicz, who, after the hurricane, found the bodies of his brother and nephew, embracing, in the basement of their Fox Beach home. “I guarantee it.”
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG SEEMS TO THINK the idea of retreating from the waterfront in the face of rising sea levels is defeatist, or at least unrealistic.
Following a report that a dramatic rise in post-hurricane flood insurance rates might prompt an exodus from places like Coney Island and the Rockaways, the mayor said, “I do not agree with those people that say everybody’s gonna move out of the low-lying areas of Staten Island, Coney Island, Breezy Point, the Rockaways. These places are still great places to live.”
The following week, during what was billed as a major infrastructure speech, the mayor said the solution was not retreat, but rather the construction of flood-resistant buildings.
“We’re not gonna leave the Rockaways or Coney Island or Staten Island’s South Shore,” he said. “But we can’t just rebuild what was there and hope for the best. We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainably.”
Shaun Donovan, the president’s Hurricane Sandy point person, has a slightly different take on the matter.
“I’ve seen in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, communities where the local community made the decision not to rebuild, to do buyouts, to allow people to move,” he told reporters in December. “Those are very, very hard decisions, but there are discussions going on right now in communities across the region about those.”
THOSE DISCUSSONS ARE VERY MUCH UNDERWAY in Fox Beach, prompted by a local landlord named Joseph Tirone, owner of a one-bedroom, one-story bungalow there.
During the hurricane, stormwaters topped out at 10 feet outside his house, and six feet inside. His tenants lost all of their belongings, except for the ones they put on a mattress that floated to the ceiling. They have since moved to Arkansas, and Tirone has gutted his building to the studs. He is not planning to rebuild.
Instead, he, along with many of his neighbors, wants the federal government to buy them out, effectively erasing the neigbhorhood and returning it to nature.
There’s a federal program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that actually underwrites that sort of thing. It’s called the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and according to the state Division of Homeland Security, it has been used successfully upstate to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, but never before in New York City.
“People are coming to us saying, ‘Can we take advantage of this program?’, and I think it’s our job to help them along in that process,” Councilman Vincent Ignizio told me.
But the process is by no means an easy one.
“Remember, there’s a lot to this that has to be understood,” said Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro. “In life, it is worse to live in false hope than in no hope at all. So as a chief executive officer, I’m not going to give anybody false hopes.”
In order for the Fox Beach residents to succeed, they, along with their elected officials, will have to convince the Bloomberg administration to petition the state for grant money.
The state, in turn, will have to petition FEMA. If FEMA obliges, its grants will cover only 75 percent of the acquisition costs, the rest theoretically covered by the city and state, if they go along with it. Which is a substantial “if,” given that they’d essentially be paying for a reduction of their tax-paying base, and setting precedent to do so on a broader basis.
“Don’t look at getting anything from the city or the state,” said Molinaro. “If it comes, then God bless you, but don’t look at that. Because you gotta realize, the city is already losing real estate tax, they’re not gonna add more money to that loss. That’s my opinion.”
In a statement, Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said, “The Mayor is committed to working with each community on plans to help them recover and rebuild stronger and more resilient to future climate events. While it’s too early to know if a buyout option makes sense in certain cases, we’ll certainly consider it for those interested.”
Even if the city does ultimately decide to play ball, Molinaro told me that for homes that were not completely destroyed, the process typically takes three to five years, which is a pretty long time to live in limbo.
A WEEK AFTER THE STORM, MONTE, THE OWNER of the grey clapboard house, returned home with a box of paper towels and four bottles of window cleaner.
“I stood in the middle of the house and I started getting upset and I called my wife and I said, ‘What am I doing here with paper towels and Fantastik?’” he told me. “We’re done, the house is done. Everything that we did here, that we built for our future, for our retirement, is done.”
Monte was standing outside his home during our interview, bundled against the cold in a puffy black vest. His front door was covered in plywood.
“They’re going around talking about people rebuilding, rebuilding … How do you live in here?” he asked, with disbelief.
There are about 165 homes in Foxbeach. At last count, 105 homeowners were interested in getting buy-outs and leaving.
Many of those homes border the Bluebelt, Staten Island’s natural stormwater management system, which relies on infrastructure like streams and ponds and wetlands to channel and then filter water back into the ocean.
Tirone, Monte and their neighbors are hoping that the Bloomberg administration will see, in their buyout requests, a rare opportunity to achieve two goals at once: expanding the Bluebelt and mitigating against future disasters.
But of course City Hall has other things to consider.
“Is the administration fully on board with an acquisition process? That’s question number one,” said Councilman James Oddo. “Two, if they are, how much money will we have, and will that be able to satisfy the interest?”
Staten Island's Hurricane Sandy Damage Sheds Light On Complicated Political Battle by Saki Knafo & Lila Shapiro
On the southern shore of Staten Island, the remains of a street called Kissam Avenue stretch across the marshland, a trail of ruins leading to the sea. When Pedro Correa first drove down the street six years ago with his wife, their young son and a real estate agent, he was amazed that a street so secluded and serene still existed in a city of eight million people. It was early spring, and a cool, salty breeze was blowing in from the ocean, rustling the 6-foot-tall curtains of grass that lined both sides of the road. The house the Correas had come to see was about 50 feet from the beach, and it was a wreck — it had been ordered in parts from a Sears catalog in the 1950s — but Correa was a practiced carpenter and he allowed himself to fantasize about “the possibilities.” He’d never imagined that his corrections officer salary could afford him a third of an acre, a deck with ocean views and an in-ground pool.
It wasn’t until Correa began paying off the $375,000 mortgage on the house that his neighbor Charlie, a retired ferry captain, told him about the history of floods in the area. In 1992, a nor’easter had filled the homes around Kissam with more than 3 feet of black sludge, destroyed furniture and appliances, and pounded away at an old, wooden sea wall that ran along the shore. The storms of ’94 and ’96 did still more damage, and then there were the countless smaller floods caused by nothing more than the combined force of a high tide and a full moon.
Still, Correa wouldn’t contemplate selling. When he was 15, he had quit high school for a job at a butcher shop to support his mother and three younger siblings after his stepfather died. In 2001 he drove his car into downtown Manhattan as the first tower fell, and in 2003 he drove a tank through Baghdad as insurgents mined the roads. When he came home a year later, some of the men who fought beside Correa in Iraq confided that they were taking medications to combat post-traumatic stress, but he didn’t want to see a psychiatrist. He took a job as a corrections sergeant at Sing Sing, where he trained to be able to protect his prison staff in the event of a riot or a fire. Correa felt he could handle whatever came at him.
On the evening of Oct. 29, about three hours before a wave crashed over Kissam Avenue and tore 13 of the block’s 17 homes from their foundations, Correa and his best friend, Bobby, stood in the kitchen cooking spaghetti and a sauce made from crabs they’d caught in the marsh the day before. Earlier that day, most of the people on the block, including Correa’s wife, Jen, and two children, PJ and Alyssa, had followed the city’s mandatory orders to evacuate, leaving only Correa and Bobby behind. At about 5:30 p.m., Correa looked out his kitchen window and realized that this storm was going to be worse than any he’d seen before. About 100 feet down the beach, whitecaps were curling over the top of the seawall. High tide would not arrive for another three hours, and already one of the block’s only defenses against the weather was failing. So he and Bobby decided to finish dinner and leave.
They stayed just long enough to haul a generator into the basement and secure Correa’s tool collection. When they got back upstairs, Correa saw his car rolling past the window and wondered if he’d parked it in neutral. Then he realized that the car wasn’t rolling, it was floating. Correa had always made it a point of pride never to run from danger, but as the surge ferried his car away, he knew that running was no longer an option.
That night, the storm that had killed at least 11 people in Cuba and 54 in Haiti spun into the wedge of water formed by Long Island and the northern coast of New Jersey and struck the southern shore of Staten Island head on. Between 7 and 8 p.m., the wind pushed a 13-foot surge down the streets of the shore-facing neighborhoods and up the creeks that spread through them like veins, submerging them in seawater and slime. At least 23 people died on Staten Island, more than half of the city’s total deaths in the storm. The only other time in recent memory that a disaster of comparable magnitude struck the borough was on Sept. 11, 2001, when 274 residents, many of them cops and firefighters, died in the World Trade Center attacks.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, people on the south shore began referring to Oakwood Beach, where Correa lived, as Ground Zero. Volunteer crews and government workers fanned out through the streets and picked through the debris, and snowplows created forlorn monuments to people’s personal lives (piles of mud-spattered gym equipment, baby cradles, a broken cello, an upright piano). Meanwhile, residents in Oakwood Beach were surprised to find themselves coming to a consensus that would have struck many of them as unimaginable on Oct. 28, the day before the storm.
For almost half a century, two generations of Staten Island’s generally conservative, independent and anti-government residents had petitioned the government to build and maintain a variety of barriers to defend them from the sea — and although elected officials had promised, on many occasions, to protect residents and their homes, authorities never delivered safety measures that the government’s own Army Corps of Engineers deemed worthy of serious consideration. The population simply continued to boom, and as real estate developers and their political allies pushed for growth, Oakwood Beach, like many other shoreline neighborhoods, morphed from a bungalow community into a modern suburb.
Jonathan Peters, an urban planning expert and economist at the College of Staten Island, described the south shore as “the wild west of city development.” A fourth-generation Staten Islander, Peters is among a small circle of professors at the college who have repeatedly warned about the dangers of overdevelopment and flooding. Through his research, Peters determined that the city allowed developers to build throughout the borough with little consideration of the risks at hand. “The rules are very loose. Why? I don’t know. It could be the developer community,” he said.
Randy Lee, a prominent Staten Island developer, dismissed the notion that development has trumped reason on Staten Island. “Everybody’s looking for a villain,” he said.
In any case, Peters placed the lion’s share of the blame on the city government, not the builders. By allowing developers to do more or less as they pleased, he said, the city had basically behaved like an “absentee landlord.”
Peters and some of his colleagues at the college also believed that Staten Island’s political culture propped up an attitude toward the environment that some residents are now beginning to question. Like the Republican Party in general, many local leaders have rejected the scientific consensus about climate change, and they’ve routinely voted against measures meant to combat it.
Year after year, storm after storm, residents voted in relative lockstep for those leaders, and insisted on staying put, hoping that the government would make good on its promises to provide aid, even as a real estate sprawl brought Staten Island ever closer to the Atlantic Ocean’s embrace. After Sandy’s onslaught, though, amid corpses and wreckage, many of Staten Island’s survivors have come to accept that they were living in a potential death trap.
“Should I have bought a house there, should I have built there, should have I put all that money there?” Correa wondered recently. “This kind of event makes you question everything you’ve done in life.”
Like nearly all of his neighbors, Correa now wanted out.
THE VICTIMS COMMITTEE
Staten Island is still the least city-like of New York City’s five boroughs, and until the 1960s, it was made up mostly of farmland and vacation homes. But after the Verrazano Bridge opened in 1964, thousands of working-class people arrived from crowded neighborhoods in Brooklyn, enticed by opportunities unavailable back in Bensonhurst and unaffordable in Long Island or on the Jersey Shore. On Staten Island, you could buy a home of your own, and if the home wasn’t big enough, you could expand it. By the 1990s, Staten Island was the fastest growing county in New York State, and even as the flow of Brooklyn Italians slowed, a new wave of settlers poured in from Brooklyn’s Russian areas. Decade after decade, new Staten Islanders built thousands of homes on wetlands that once had served as a natural buffer against the storms that blew in from the sea.
As the houses went up, residents of Oakwood Beach pressured elected leaders to help protect them. The most recent of these efforts goes back to the winter of 1992, when a December nor’easter destroyed parts of the seawall, which the government had built in the 1950s. That storm led to the formation of the Oakwood Flood Victims Committee, a group of mostly young, middle- and working-class parents who tried to push the city, the state and the federal governments to do something. One afternoon, about a month after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the neighborhood, possibly for good, Jackie Nielsen, the former head of the committee, walked into Gennaro’s Restaurant and Pizzeria in Oakwood Beach and dropped a pile of newspaper clippings and documents on the table. “It’s all in here,” she said.
A second-generation Oakwood Beach resident who, at 53, still had the wiry build and tough manner of a former star softball shortstop, Nielsen said that the neighborhood didn’t flood at all when she was a kid. A berm, or a mound of rock and sand, ran along the beach, and a wooden seawall sat at the water’s edge, and that was enough. It was only after the ’92 storm knocked down parts of the berm and tore planks out of the seawall that she and her neighbors became accustomed to the sight of water creeping across their backyards and seeping into their homes. Nearly every week for four years, the Oakwood Flood Victims Committee met at a veterans’ post to petition the government for help, and every week, elected officials and their aides would come listen.
Some might have seen the group’s courtship of the government as ironic. Staten Islanders have a long history of conservative-minded independence and have considered seceding from greater New York City on occasion. Through their elected officials, they’ve urged the government to be less present in their lives, and yet they were now seeking government subsidies to protect them from the consequences of the personal risks they took by living in a potential disaster zone. Nielsen, for her part, mostly voted for Democrats, she said, but if she had any objections to her neighbors’ political beliefs, she rarely brought them up. “We never talked about politics,” she said. “We just wanted to get the job done.”
Her group had two basic demands: First, repair the damaged seawall and berm, and second, come up with a long-term solution that would make not just Oakwood Beach, but the whole south shore of Staten Island, a safe place to live. Residents had been asking for a long-term solution since before Nielsen was born, and in 1965, when she was 6, the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to study the problem. Forty-seven years later, the agency’s experts are still studying it. Nielsen likes to say that if they printed out all of their studies and built a wall with them, they could do more for the neighborhood than they have done in all those years of studying.
There was one big drawback to this more comprehensive approach: No one wanted to pay for it. Although Susan Molinari, Staten Island’s Republican congresswoman at the time, convinced Congress to set aside $330,000 for a study of the coastline in 1995, that study didn’t get started until 2000, and after a few years it ran out of money. Nielsen thought the difficulties came down to class issues. A few days after Sandy, she pointed out, city crews began rebuilding the dunes on the beach in Belmar, N.J., where a 20-block boardwalk, restaurants and tourist attractions brought in millions of dollars last summer. But nearly a month after Sandy, people in Oakwood Beach still didn’t know if they’d ever be able to return to their homes. “Who cares about protecting the homes of a teacher, a plumber, a guy who works for the Parks Department?” Nielsen asked. “I don’t know.”
Then there was the short-term fix, which had its own problems. In 1993, the city repaired the most badly damaged part of the berm, and the next year, Molinari got the city, the state and two federal agencies to agree to sharing the cost of fixing the seawall. But half a year after that, the Army Corps scrapped the seawall plan, saying it was too expensive. As an alternative, the army proposed building a system of levees, mounds of earth and rock, which would guide water into a marsh a few blocks inland.
This revised plan called for a 10-foot levee and a floodgate to be installed at the mouth of a creek that ran along the southern edge of the beach and emptied out into a 70-acre marsh wrapping around Kissam Avenue. When it rained, the creek would often overflow, joining the rush of water pouring in from the sea. By building the floodgate and the levee, the Army Corps hoped to divert water away from the homes, toward the inland marsh. It planned to build a second levee at that site, to keep the water from overflowing the marsh there. But the Army Corps never fully followed through on that plan. By the time the agency broke ground on the project, in 1999, developers had begun building a complex of townhouses in the marsh. According to Nielsen, this may have had fatal consequences.
Leaving the pizzeria, Nielsen drove through the neighborhood and stopped in front of a bungalow-style home on Fox Beach Avenue, one of the streets that leads through the undeveloped marshland all the way to the shore. She pointed to the plywood boards covering the blown-out windows of a basement where her friend Leonard Montalto drowned on the night of the storm. Nielsen had assumed he’d gone down there to pump water. Bunches of flowers still rested on the stoop.
Farther down the street she stopped in front of another modernized bungalow, where John Filipowicz Sr., a 51-year-old school bus driver, and his son John Jr., a 20-year-old student at Staten Island College, were found dead in the basement the day after the storm, clinging to each other. There, too, plywood covered a large section of the basement wall.
To an unsuspicious eye, there would have been nothing particularly unusual about either of the homes, situated as they were in a flood-zone filled with plywood-covered properties. But Nielsen felt that something about them warranted suspicion. In both cases, the damaged walls faced away from the sea. “If the water came from the ocean, how could it strike the walls with enough force to break them?” By her own reasoning, and by the accounts of several residents who stayed behind during the storm, the water rushed down the street from the area where the Army Corps had planned to build that second levee, before developers put up townhouses on the property.
Nielsen now lives near Rutgers University, in N.J., at the top of the tallest hill she could find in the area; she went to the county clerk’s archive and took out a prospector’s map to research the local elevations. In 2000, right after the Army Corps finished building the levee system, she found a buyer for her Staten Island home. “We took a beating on it,” she said, “but we wanted to get out of there as fast as we could.”
Staring at the dark street from his back door on the night that Sandy landed, Correa could see something massive moving toward him on the waves. The storm had swept his next-door neighbor’s home off its old foundation and sent it hurtling toward the side of his house. He heard a boom and felt a jolt as his house slipped off the concrete platform beneath it and tipped backward into his yard. The back of the house began filling with water. Within minutes the water was up to Correa’s chest. Correa and Bobby fought their way to the front of the house, where the water hadn’t yet climbed to their waists. Correa called Jen, his wife, at her friend’s house, but she didn’t pick up. He left a message: “I love you with all of my heart.” He and Bobby spent the next few minutes trying to figure out how to escape.
When he’d trained as a corrections sergeant, one of his instructors told him that if should ever find himself trapped in a flood, he should always remember to “stay with the structure.” But now the structure was falling apart around him. For a few minutes he and Bobby considered taking refuge in the attic, but they weren’t sure they’d be able to swim out if the water got that high. So instead they decided to take their chances outside.
As a roof floated past his door, Correa jumped for it, breaking a rib as his chest smashed into the edge. He clambered up the side, and then reached down to help Bobby out of the water. As the current carried the roof into the marsh, Correa’s home faded into the night.
In abandoning his home, Correa was doing something he’d never done before, despite having had good reason to do so on at least three previous occasions. In 2009, on Easter Sunday, Correa and his wife woke up from a nap to the sound of a fire roaring in the dried grass across the street. A wall of flames filled the view from their bedroom window. Jen grabbed the kids and drove away, and Correa and a neighbor broke into a third neighbor’s apartment to rescue a terrified rottweiler and pit bull. After driving the dogs to safety, Correa returned to his home and climbed onto the roof with a garden hose. He and a few other men on the block stayed behind to spray down their roofs with water as the fire spewed embers at them.
A year later, Correa stayed behind to pump out his basement while a nor’easter flooded his street. And the year after that, he defied the city’s orders to clear out in time for Hurricane Irene.
Like almost all of his neighbors, Correa had invested most of his life’s savings into his home, and except for a few trips to Disney World with his family, he spent all of his vacations improving it. Whenever he and Jen had an argument, she would throw on a pair of running shoes and take off down the street, and he would carve another railing for his deck or bang together another cabinet. In the past six years, he has built a front porch, a big deck overlooking the ocean, a kitchen, a bathroom and an apartment for his mother in the basement. Last spring, he built a chicken coop for seven hens and a rooster, attracting the attention of an eagle that perched on a neighbor’s tree.
In his passion for home improvement, and in many other respects, Correa was a lot like all the other men on the block, and that was one of the things he liked most about living there. Adam down the street was a cop; Vinny was a mailman. They all had kids, and they all had tools. They all helped build each other’s decks and tile each other’s bathrooms, and they all subscribed to an ethos that Vinny would later sum up by saying, “We took care of each other and we took care of ourselves.” What Vinny didn’t say at that moment, but what he and Correa and many others felt, was that they couldn’t count on the government to take care of them.
Staten Islanders often attribute their political loyalties to the borough’s limited representation in the city government: Of the 51 members of New York’s City Council, only three represent Staten Island. And while that number is proportional to the borough’s population of about 500,000, Staten Islanders often point out that their borough differs from most places inhabited by half a million people — Atlanta, Sacramento, Tucson — in that most of those places get to create their own policies.
On Staten Island, one policy in particular explains why residents view the city as the oppressor. In 1947, the city gave Staten Island the gift of the world’s largest landfill, spawning a secession movement that came to a head in 1993, when Staten Islanders voted by a measure of two-to-one to break away from New York City’s government. They were prevented from doing so only by a ruling of the Democratic leadership in the New York State Assembly.
So the residents there tend to have little enthusiasm for what Correa politely called government “entitlements,” and yet as the vicious winds pelted Correa’s makeshift raft with pieces of his neighbors’ homes, he thought for one gloriously hopeful moment that two specific government departments had come to his rescue. Staten Island’s resentment of government has rarely, if ever, extended to police officers and firefighters, and for that one moment, Correa imagined that the lights blinking on and off across the marsh belonged to rescuers. Then he realized with a sickening feeling that the SOS flashes came from people trapped in their homes. They must have thought he was a rescuer, too. As they signaled their distress, the roof drifted farther and farther into the marsh.
‘THE REAL ESTATE PARTY’
By the time Jackie Nielsen had left for New Jersey, John LaFemina, another Oakwood Beach community activist who had worked closely with her group, was one of the few people in the neighborhood still fighting for government help. After the Army Corps installed its temporary protections in 2000, concerns about flooding “faded away” from the public agenda, LaFemina said. But when LaFemina saw what happened to New Orleans in 2005, he tried to resurrect the fight. He said he held two meetings to discuss the issue and invited all of the government officials who represented the area to attend. Only one showed up, he said — a man named Anthony Licciardello.
Licciardello was a low-ranking official in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first administration — his title was “Staten Island director of the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit.” Before joining the Bloomberg administration, Licciardello had worked as a crime victims investigator for New York State. “If you look deeper, things turn up,” he said of the experience.
In 2003, as a member of a City Hall task force, he and other officials had looked into the problem of overdevelopment on Staten Island, and they’d come up with a series of guidelines aimed at relieving traffic and preserving the borough’s suburban character. They required builders to raise living quarters above a certain elevation level, but they didn’t adopt measures that would have kept builders out of the flood plains altogether.
After his meeting with LaFemina, Licciardello arranged for a group of city and state officials to accompany him on a tour of Kissam Avenue — where the Correa family had just settled. As the delegation walked down the street, Licciardello was shocked by what he saw. From the contrasting patterns of lawn and marsh, it was obvious to him that people had defied a New York State rule restricting them from filling in wetlands. But when he confronted a state official about this, the official told him that you couldn’t penalize transgressors unless you caught them in the act.
Licciardello dug into the history of flooding in Oakwood Beach, and discovered a memo from the Army Corps saying that it had run out of money to pursue that long-term study first proposed in 1965 and later commissioned in 1993 — the one that Jackie Nielsen had unsuccessfully pushed it to complete. With the help of LaFemina, Licciardello assembled some documents detailing the residents’ failed attempts to get the protection they felt they needed. In 2006, Licciardello says, he sent a memo to his bosses in the Bloomberg administration urging them to take “immediate action” to help the neighborhood. He never got a response.
Licciardello says he doesn’t have a copy of this memo, which he claims to have sent from a city email account that no longer exists. A draft of an email that Licciardello says he later sent to a supervisor while preparing the memo cited a 1999 report in which the Army Corps had determined that federal protection of the area was “warranted.” But as Licciardello pointed out in the email draft, the study had run out of money.
“There may be heightened concern among residents if the details of the Army Corps of Engineer reports become public knowledge,” Licciardello wrote.
The Bloomberg administration replied to a request for the Licciardello memo by saying that if a record exists, a copy would not be available until after the publication of this story. A spokesman for the Bloomberg administration didn’t respond to multiple requests for a confirmation of the memo’s existence, or to any other questions about Oakwood Beach. Vanessa Friedhoff, an attorney in New Jersey who worked as Licciardello’s intern at City Hall, said she remembers typing up the memo and recalled that it shed light on the fact that there could be “problems for the city in the case of a storm” and offered “some proposals to help fortify the infrastructure.”
Some community advocates, echoing LaFemina, say they thought the study ran out of money because residents became complacent after the construction of the temporary flood barriers in 2000. The local congressman at the time was Vito Fossella, who served from 1997 to 2009. In a recent interview, Fossella said that the study had for some reason hit a roadblock, and claimed that he’d urged the Army Corps to “go back and figure out what the deal is.” The Army Corps, for its part, said that the only roadblock it encountered was a lack of federal funding.
The funding came to “a complete grinding halt” in 2006, said Chris Gardner, an Army Corps spokesman. In 2008, the funding resumed, though at lower levels than before, and in 2009, Democratic councilman Michael McMahon won the borough’s congressional seat amid anger over Fossella’s involvement in a sex scandal, and helped persuade the Obama administration to devote $550,000 of stimulus funds to the project. That was enough to put the Army Corps employees back on the job, but by then the study had been dormant for nearly three years and much of the data had to be reevaluated.
Throughout those years, LaFemina, a long-time builder, watched with a growing sense of apprehension as multi-family homes continued to spring up all over the wetlands. One of the projects that troubled him most was the complex of townhouses built in the marshy area where the Army Corps had considered building a levee. In 1992, almost a year before the nor’easter hit Staten Island, developers had submitted an application to the city asking to buy the land, which the city owned. LaFemina says he raised objections to the sale in community meetings, arguing that if developers were allowed to build on that marsh, the community would lose another important buffer against flooding. But in 1997, after the Army Corps identified the area as a possible site for the levee, the City Council approved the deal. (Gardner, the Army Corps spokesman, played down the significance of this decision, saying that the Army Corps raised roads in the area as an alternative to building a levee. He also noted that the levee might not have done much to protect the neighborhood from a storm as big as Sandy.)
Even after the City Council adopted the zoning guidelines recommended by the mayor’s 2003 task force, the city continued handing out waivers that allowed builders to go around the new rules. LaFemina had little trouble coming up with an explanation for this. “If you check out all the politicians that run around here and look where the campaign contributions come from, they all come from builders,” he said.
One Staten Island political player, Lawrence J. Hanley, a former Staten Island bus driver who now leads the Amalgamated Transit Union, put it even more bluntly. “There’s only one party on Staten Island, and it’s the real estate party,” he said.
In the years that LaFemina and Licciardello were trying to get the government to help the neighborhood, the political establishment in Staten Island was dominated by two men, Fossella and Guy Molinari, both of whom remain influential in the borough. Molinari, who served as borough president from 1990 to 2001, has been described as the “Karl Rove” of Staten Island, a master strategist who essentially runs the borough’s branch of the Republican Party to this day. For years, aspiring politicians from all over the island sought his blessing, but in 2004, he had a falling out with one of his protégés, Fossella, and ever since then Molinari’s camp and Fossella’s have been at odds. Although Fossella left office in 2009, several of his associates continue to hold influential political offices, and there are rumors that Fossella is considering a run for borough president in 2013.
Despite their ongoing feud, both Molinari and Fossella, along with many of their associates in Washington, Albany, and City Hall, have close ties to the real estate industry, which is one of the few sources of economic growth on Staten Island. By his own account, Molinari has personally invested in real estate — in fact, as a young man he gambled on an Oakwood Beach property investment that ended, like many other investments there, in a storm — and since leaving office he has lobbied elected officials on behalf of real estate and construction companies. In a phone interview, he denied that he and his political allies had ever catered to their friends and funders in the industry, but he offered the opinion that Fossella was a “different story.” Fossella’s father was a powerful architect and developer. “There was a kind of thing where you had to go through the father to be able to get your projects approved,” Molinari said.
Fossella disputed Molinari’s characterization of him. “I think he needs a check on reality,” he said, noting that many of his family members were personally affected by Sandy and that he had pushed for the rezoning process that led to the formation of the mayor’s 2003 task force.
Although the idea of developers running rampant on Staten Island may bring to mind Donald Trump or Bruce Ratner, politicians and voters on Staten Island are more likely to be subjected to “the tyranny of small developers,” as a political scientist at the College of Staten Island put it.
One Staten Island developer, Anthony Tucci, sits on the cabinet of the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation, an organization that promotes business interests on Staten Island and whose 11 person executive committee includes James Molinaro, the borough president. Tucci, a tax attorney, was involved in the construction of some of the townhouses built in the marsh area where the Army Corps had planned to erect that second levee back in 1996. Asked to respond to the concerns of some Oakwood Beach residents about the possibility that the complex could have contributed to the destruction caused by Sandy, Tucci first tried to distance himself from the project. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he said, before putting the phone call on hold.
When he got back on the call, he was angry.
Asking him questions about real estate development on Staten Island amounted to a “witch hunt,” he said. The project in question “was lawfully constructed” and its developers complied “one thousand percent to every rule that’s out there.” He argued that “everybody is being hurt” by Sandy and said, “If you’re going to go ahead and develop a story like that, I’m putting you on notice.” After about 15 minutes, he asked where the concerns about overdevelopment on Staten Island originated. Told that various community leaders had brought them to light, he replied, “Community leaders have been creating problems from day one.”
‘I NEVER LIKED COLD WATER’
Stranded in the marsh on their improvised raft, Correa and Bobby faced a fresh dilemma. The remains of people’s homes were piling up against the edge of the roof where they had hoped to ride out the rest of the storm, and Correa could hear the roof creaking and buckling under the pressure. Correa was afraid that the roof would crack and sink. He and Bobby thought about jumping, but the silhouettes of the closest houses seemed far away and they weren’t sure they could make it through the churning debris.
Later, when Correa recounted how they managed to get out, he specifically noted that salvation came in the form of a bundle of 2-by-6 planks. His neighbor Eric had been in the midst of yet another round of home repairs, and like any carpenter who cares about his work, he had chosen the finest materials. The planks proved strong enough for Correa and Bobby to construct a makeshift gangway from the roof almost all the way to dry land.
Nearly an hour after they’d deserted Correa’s home, Correa and Bobby were just a few yards from the houses on Mill Road, a street that ran parallel to the marsh. But a channel of swiftly moving water separated them from the nearest doorstep and Correa’s arms were so cold that it took all of his effort to swim. Making matters worse, about 20 pounds of firearms were hanging from a satchel around his neck. In his rush to get out of the house, Correa had grabbed them from his safe so that they wouldn’t wash up on a nearby street where anyone could find them.
At about 9 p.m., Jen Correa received a call at her friend’s home in Brooklyn. Pedro had made it to higher ground, though not before running into a team of police rescuers who asked him to go back into the water to help them save an elderly woman from her house down the road. Correa gamely accepted the assignment, but he did not relish the prospect of going back into the waves. Just a year before, he had used a home equity loan to buy a $3,000 water heater for the pool. “I never liked cold water,” he later confessed.
THE ‘FORGOTTEN BOROUGH’
After the storm, help was slow to arrive on Staten Island, and residents felt that their “forgotten borough” had been forgotten again. More isolated than ever from the rest of the city, with the majority of cars in the flood-zone rendered useless, residents banded together to pump out each other’s basements, to provide the newly homeless with food, clothing, water and blankets, to rescue those still trapped, and to spread the word of their suffering on the Internet. One anonymous message making the rounds on Facebook invited outsiders to keep pretending that Staten Island didn’t exist. “We tell adversity to shove it and we take care of our own.”
When he wasn’t helping his neighbors pick through their ruined belongings, Correa made repeated trips back to Kissam Avenue, where he surveyed what was left of the house. The front steps now led to nowhere (Vinny called them the “stairway to heaven”), but the backyard deck had survived almost completely intact, which Correa attributed, half-jokingly, to his superior carpentry skills.
The home itself was gone. One day, Correa and Bobby commandeered a rowboat that the police rescuers had left behind and carved a path through the tall grasses to the middle of the marsh, where they found the house sitting at an angle in a forest of weeds. Sludge covered every surface and filled the house with a nasty stench. Correa rescued his wife’s wedding dress and their children’s baptismal pictures from the top shelf of a closet.
Three days after the storm, Correa saw his first newspaper reporter. On the fourth day, he was interviewed on Dateline. Over the following weeks, he and Jen met supermodel Christy Turlington and flew to Chicago to tape a segment for the “Steve Harvey” show.
Like Correa, the “forgotten borough” had suddenly become something of a celebrity, and thousands of dollars poured into the online account that Jen and Pedro had set up for donations. Correa shaved, borrowed a suit, and met with a landlord who agreed to let him sign a three-month lease on an apartment. Every day, he went back to the plot of land where his house had been and contemplated his future. He thought about rebuilding. “With the carpentry skills I have, I could make it beautiful again,” he said a week after the storm. What he refused to do was place blame on anyone but himself.
One recent day, as the sun sparkled across the calm surface of the sea, a white, six-seat Ford F-150 pickup truck made its way along Staten Island’s notoriously congested roads toward Correa’s street. Inside were three professors from the College of Staten Island, the borough’s branch of the City University of New York. On a block full of cops and contractors, the professors were like visitors from another world. One of them, geologist Alan Benimoff, wore a navy suit, rimless glasses, and a neat white mustache. Richard Flanagan, a public policy expert, had on a navy sports jacket and an old-fashioned wool cap, and Jonathan Peters, an economist and fourth-generation Staten Islander, looked less like a professor than an FBI agent gone rogue. He wore a black suit and black wrap-around shades, and referred to the white truck as his “military vehicle” and the south shore as a “war zone.”
The three had been working together on various studies for about a decade, and in the last several years they’d turned their attention to Staten Island’s shoreline. Using an advanced computer mapping system, Benimoff had shown that thousands of homes had materialized over the decades in flood zones designated dangerous by the New York State Office of Emergency Management. Peters’ research showed that the city had allowed most of this development to take place in a pell-mell way, regardless of risk. Flanagan had supplied research on the political culture that enabled the development.
As they drove toward Kissam Avenue, Peters and Benimoff shouted over each other, arguing about everything from whether to rebuild in those areas to whether to make a right turn at the next intersection. Flanagan sat quietly in the back, chiming in every now and then to issue some bleak observation about the state of affairs on Staten Island and in society at-large.
As they turned onto Kissam, Benimoff, whom Peters had described as the “worm cutter and the rock breaker” of the bunch, gaped at the remains of what he considered the inevitable convergence of economic and geological forces.
“This was a house, look,” he proclaimed, staring out the window at a square of exposed concrete blocks. “A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds! It was like putting hammer to them!”
They made their way down the street, passing Correa’s old property, and Benimoff continued to riff on an argument that he’d been pushing all afternoon. “They don’t think there’s a threat,” he said of the invisible residents, snapping pictures on his phone of the remnants of their homes. He did an impression of a naïve home-buyer: “‘Its not going to happen to me!’”
Peters cut him off. “It’s not that, it’s what else can they afford?” The low-lying areas of Staten Island are New York City’s “9th Ward,” he said. “This is an area where people can be homeowners. The question is: Does the housing go to the lowest common denominator? The city has to say what’s safe, what’s appropriate.”
Flanagan spoke up from the back seat. “If you look at the public agenda, the flashpoint has been, ‘Man, that house just got torn down and those S.O.B. developers put up four townhouses in the spot.’” As a result, he said, the dangers of flooding have all but disappeared from public discourse. He waved his hand dismissively. “Getting hit by an asteroid is just as big a factor.”
In the years before the storm, the professors had tried to raise alarms, but they struggled to capture the attention of anyone except for a handful of fellow scholars in their fields. Peters said their Staten Island status sometimes made it hard for them to earn the respect of high-up academics and administrators in New York City’s public university system. He also felt that his colleagues at other university systems had more opportunities to communicate with the city officials responsible for shaping policies.
The College of Staten Island sits on the former grounds of the Willowbrook mental institution, the state hospital that was shut down after an investigation by a young Geraldo Rivera revealed widespread abuse, and as the professors pulled into that iconic site of civic failure, the conversation turned to what they, and Staten Islanders more generally, could do with all the attention they were suddenly receiving. In the past few weeks, the island’s politicians had found themselves in the rare position of speaking to a national audience, and yet, as they debated the merits of rebuilding and mulled over the question of who should foot the bill, one topic rarely came up.
When it did, it was mostly treated as a bizarre or overly complicated footnote. “Me, personally, I don’t want to get into climate change,” said James Oddo, a Staten Island councilman. “Climate change is slow,” said the borough president, James Molinaro. “When I first heard about it, it sounded wacky, and it still sounds wacky,” said the Republican power broker Guy Molinari, adding, “Maybe there’s something to it.”
Thomas Matteo, the official Staten Island historian and a Molinaro appointee, dismissed the scientific consensus on humankind’s role in climate change even more directly: “That’s total bullshit.”
“The Republicans should wake up one morning and realize that you should be prudent,” said Peters, who describes himself as a Staten Island conservative. “And the prudent thing to do is to minimize your carbon footprint. Whether or not you’re buying in yet to global warming, whether or not you have your head in the sand, the reality is it can’t hurt to be prudent.”
Benimoff interrupted: “Can I just say something? What do we do about China and India? Can we tell them to reduce–”
Peters ignored him. “I believe that Republicans should be green,” he said. “I think it’s the right place for the future. Does Staten Island now lead that conversation because people are frustrated and they feel that they need to be greener to protect their community? Maybe. Maybe that’s the next step in all this. That might be a good outcome of this.” He turned to Flanagan in the back. “Are the political winds changing that way yet, Rich?”
Flanagan thought for a few moments before articulating his response. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I think that this issue will get lost in the weeds.”
‘LOST IN THE WEEDS’
With Jackie Nielsen exiled to New Jersey, one of her neighbors, Tina Downer, joined John LaFemina in campaigning for those long-awaited, long-term flood barriers. By the time Sandy hit, she’d come to believe that those barriers would never arrive. And by the time she gathered her neighbors in a church auditorium three weeks after the storm, she’d concluded that there was a better option than staying put.
“This has nothing to do with government, this has nothing to do with politics,” she said at the outset of the meeting — a welcome assurance, perhaps, to anyone in the crowd who shared her enthusiasm for the libertarian politics of Ron Paul. She’d brought the neighborhood together, she went on, to share ideas and perhaps come to some kind of agreement about how to move forward. She then invited the crowd to consider a term she holds dear. “A lot of people don’t realize what anarchy really means,” she said. “It doesn’t really mean chaos. It means a group without rules or rulers. A team needs players and everybody has to work together.”
This opening elicited no audible reaction from the hundreds of people in the audience. But after she’d ceded the floor to some community leaders who said they could help residents get power tools and bleach to restore their homes, the crowd grew restless. One by one, the citizens began exercising their right to free speech. “I want to talk about the berm!” one woman shouted to cheers. “There is no berm!” a man shouted back. A city sewer-worker in overalls stood up and delivered a passionate plea. “Anybody who thinks that there’s a solution to this is out of their mind. I personally don’t want no bleach, no sheetrock, that’s not what we’re here for,” he said. “I’ve been told from guys high up there’s nothing you can do. That area was meant for doing what it did a hundred years ago: to take water.”
Just as the room seemed on the verge of breaking out into the kind of anarchy that does not involve teamwork, a woman in tears stepped to the front of the room. “Everyone is saying walk away! You just can’t walk away with nothing!”
“Do you think I can just pick up and go?” asked Downer — and then she cast aside any intention she may have had of speaking only for herself. “We’re looking to be bought out. We want to be bought out. We want pre-storm value to our homes.” Applause filled the auditorium. Several people demanded a vote: Did anyone want to stay and rebuild? Of the hundreds of people in the room, three or four raised their hands.
Some in the crowd later said they believed they were in in a better position to sell their homes than people in other hard-hit communities, thanks to some of the same factors that had made it so difficult for them to get help when they wanted to stay. The neighborhood was small and cheap and surrounded by a complicated patchwork of lands under a variety of jurisdictions, and the city had already made plans to incorporate parts of the neighborhood into a network of ponds and creeks that serve as the borough’s natural drainage system.
Among those who felt otherwise was Correa, who left the meeting halfway through. The confidence that had fueled his desire to live on a street surrounded by water, and that had kept him going on the night of the storm, had faltered. He’d never expected much of the government, and he didn’t think the government would swoop in to save him now. He’d come to the difficult conclusion that he’d watch his kids grow up in an ordinary apartment with none of the magic that he’d glimpsed when he first drove down Kissam Avenue. “I just don’t see it ending in any way except bankruptcy,” he said.
A week later, in the hopes of cushioning the inevitable financial blow, he put on his waders and led a group of men from the insurance agency into the tall, yellow grass along his old road. They followed the winding path that he and Bobby had cleared with the rowboat after the storm, and when they finally got to the house they climbed inside through a hole in the wall. Two of the insurance men took out cameras and measuring tools, and the third pulled out a clipboard and began taking notes.
Correa slipped into his daughter’s room.
A few years ago he’d painted it pink, and he’d stocked it with everything a little girl would need to imagine she was living in a Disney fairytale. Now the sea had painted the walls and the bed with sludge, and it had thrown her toys on the floor. Correa reached down and picked up a Tinkerbell doll and stood there looking at it for about a minute. He teared up and breathed in sharply through his nose. Squaring his shoulders, he returned it to its proper place on the dresser. Then he went back out into the hall to tell the man with the clipboard how much he’d paid for the family’s possessions.
Daniel Lippman contributed research to this article.