Documentary about Staten Island, Superstorm Sandy and the buyout

Aug 19

Gov. Andrew Cuomo expands Staten Island Sandy buyout zone in Oakwood Beach

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The Cuomo administration has enhanced the home buyout zone in a portion of Oakwood Beach ravaged by superstorm Sandy.

About 120 homes on the periphery of Fox Beach were added by the state, bringing to 300 the number of homes eligible for a buyout, with a potential expansion to 510 homes.

The area, which borders city, state and federally-owned land, includes Riga Street, Merkel Place and Delwit Avenue, which were initially left out of the enhanced buyout area outlined by the state.

The homes are now eligible for a pre-storm value buyout, along with a 10 percent incentive if the homeowners remain residents of Staten Island.

“The damage caused by superstorm Sandy was nothing short of devastating, and no one knows that more than the homeowners whose lives were turned upside-down,” said Matthew Wing, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “The state’s buyout program is an important opportunity for those impacted New Yorkers to truly have a fresh start, and expanding the coverage zone to include these additional residents was the right thing to do as we continue to build back smarter and stronger than before.”

Joe Tirone of the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee had words of praise: “I think it’s great. That area is perfect for what the governor has identified as criteria to be considered. It is surrounded by the Blue Belt. It acts as a buffer for the inland portion going toward Hylan Boulevard. All of these homes were substantially damaged.”

In a joint letter to Cuomo in May, state Sens. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn) and Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) asked him to consider the expansion.

They noted the area is 50 feet from the enhanced Oakwood Beach buyout zone the governor highlighted during a visit to Staten Island announcing the program. They said Riga Street and Delwit Avenue are south of Mill Road and bounded by an estuary of salt tidal marsh bordering Fox Beach Lane and Kissam Avenue.

They said that while some residents moved back home, they still want to be bought out because they are “consistently inundated by flooding.”

Ms. Savino called the enhancement “wonderful news,” but added: “The fight continues to have sections of South Beach, like Sunnymeade Village, sections of Great Kills Beach, Midland Beach, Ocean Breeze and New Dorp Beach included in new or expanded enhanced zones.”


Jun 20

Letter from Fox Beach Ave

Fox Beach Ave Letter 6

Jun 20

Letter from Fox Beach Ave

Fox Beach Ave Letter 5

Jun 20

Letter from Fox Beach Ave

Fox Beach Ave Letter 4

Jun 20

Letter from Fox Beach Ave

Fox Beach Ave Letter 3

Jun 20

Letter from Fox Beach Ave

Fox Beach Ave Letter 2

Jun 20

Letter from Fox Beach Ave

Fox Beach Ave Letter 1

May 06

Staten Island homeowners in limbo

May 03, 2013 10:29 am

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.”

May 01

Hurricane Sandy Buyouts Cause Storm Of Confusion, Worry From Politicians by David Howard King


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. 



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