Clutching a fish in its talons, the osprey perches atop a telephone pole high above rustling 6-foot-high wetland grasses, but the presence of our car slowly rolling through its dining room is clearly unwelcome. It takes off and flaps ahead to another spot as we advance down the potholed, puddled road; Lisa Bova-Hiatt, executive director of New York's Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, is showing me around what remains of the Oakwood Beach area of Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy walloped it nearly five years ago. She inches her car forward as we crane our necks, tracking the wildlife out the window. The osprey briefly claws its way into its seafood dinner before, exasperated by our approach, it flies away until it vanishes from view.
Just a few years ago, the reeds and raptors competed for space with neat lawns belonging to the small houses lining Kissam Avenue. Now most of the homes are gone, and only the street itself and a few telephone poles adorned with black wires remain.
A block over, I can see dozens of vacant lots and a scattering of abandoned houses waiting to be demolished. Down at the shoreline—reached through a short, steep wooded path beyond a berm at the end of the lane—the beach is lined with massive sandbags that form a temporary seawall several feet tall. The skyline of Coney Island rises hazily on the horizon.
Thunder rumbles in the distance. A storm is coming, but luckily, not nearly as large as the one that swept through nearly five years ago. Then, Sandy created the environs that we see here today—not by washing away homes but by convincing a neighborhood of a few hundred people that it was time to move on. Usually, these kinds of changes follow a pattern. Natural disaster strikes, the government identifies vulnerable areas, and attempts to persuade residents to leave. The reverse happened here. The residents of Oakwood Beach wanted to make sure that no family would ever again have to endure what they went through.
Five years ago: Sandy hits Staten Island
When Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey on October 29, 2012, low-lying areas like Oakwood Beach, on the eastern shore of Staten Island, were inundated with a 20-foot storm surge that spilled into homes and battered the landscape.
Patricia Snyder, who grew up in the community and raised her family here, recalls Sandy being much worse than what she calls the “no-name nor’easter” that inundated the area in 1992. “Back then, it was 4 to 6 inches in my home. This time it was close to 6 feet.” She and her husband, Charles, lost most of the contents of their house and faced extensive renovations to make the place habitable again. But they were safe. In all, 24 Staten Islanders died during Sandy, many of them drowning in their homes. Three of the victims were from Oakwood Beach. One was her brother, Leonard Montalto. “At that point, I was never going back to that neighborhood,” Snyder says.
The rest of the neighborhood also suffered. Joe Tirone, a local real estate broker, had an investment property in Oakwood Beach. “My tenants came back and saw that everything in their material world was gone,” Tirone says. “There was 7 to 8 feet of water inside and 11 feet of it outside their home.“
Initially he thought restoring the property was his only option. “But the last thing I wanted to do was rebuild and rent it and put another tenant at risk, or sell it and put another family at risk,” he says.
Then Tirone came across information about a buyout program. The Department of Housing and Urban Development had set aside money to buy up flood-prone properties. A community could ask the government to buy the land and give residents enough money to start over somewhere else and, in the process, prevent the area from being redeveloped in the same way again. When Tirone presented his findings at a community meeting held weeks after Sandy, he expected only a few people to be intrigued. Instead, hundreds wanted to participate.
Over the past five years, the Office of Storm Recovery has worked with residents in Oakwood Beach and two other small sections on Staten Island to appraise and buy their houses at pre-storm values, then began clearing away the buildings and debris. By 2022, when the mandate for the program expires, the purchased land will be open space.
“Leaving people in an area that will always flood is just not appropriate anymore, especially as extreme weather becomes more and more prevalent,” Bova-Hiatt explains. “At some point you have to say, ‘We’re not going to leave people living in a wetland.’ We can build back thoughtfully and make sure there’s a green buffer to protect those who still live in the area.”
The idea is that while homes farther inland or at higher elevations are more resilient, the places that are prone to flooding will be returned to nature. Manufactured surfaces like concrete and asphalt are smooth and impermeable, and push water inland during storms. Ripping them out in favor of grasses and marshes gives floodwater an alternative, letting storm surges and precipitation sink into the earth. Used in combination with other measures, open spaces are another line of defense for a community bracing itself for the next storm.
Why were these houses there?
Vacationers summered in small beach cottages and bungalows in this part of Staten Island during the earlier half of the 20th century. After WWII, veterans snapped up the affordable land as permanent housing, near the beach and a mix of blue- and white-collar work, often as government employees and first responders. Close to New York City, yet feeling distinctly like the country, the location was a retreat where they could relax with their families and socialize at the local VFW post, which has a patriotic mural and a neatly trimmed lawn when we drive by. Bova-Hiatt, herself a Staten Island resident, shows me pictures from the still-vibrant hall: Older veterans stand next to beaming young sailors on shore leave during Fleet Week. They’re keeping up a tradition of being a safe haven in a fast-moving world.
The area was worth the annoyances that came with the boggy terrain. In spring, fires sweep through the dry overgrowth. In summer, the damp area is a breeding ground for mosquitos. Fall brings nor'easters and hurricanes. In winter, a damp cold swept through the houses, built so close together that you could reach out your window and touch your neighbor’s home. Often, that neighbor was a family member. “Grandmothers lived next to grandchildren,” Tirone says.
Snyder’s family was one of those, bound by genetics and proximity. Her parents moved to the area back in 1965, when she was 8 years old. Her husband had grown up in the same neighborhood, and they decided to raise their own family there. Their daughter eventually moved into a nearby home. Patricia’s brother, a postal worker, raised his three daughters down the street.
They’d dealt with flooding before. After the 1992 storm, a neighborhood committee formed to gather documents and information to figure out what the options were to keep the flooding from happening again. At the time, they didn’t qualify for most of the assistance that was available and were reassured that projects to reduce erosion—and the flooding that came with it—were underway. Twenty years passed, free of major disasters, and the idea faded.
After Sandy, Snyder says, a neighbor who had been on that committee came to see her about the newly proposed buyouts. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. When you’re ready, let's finish this,’” Snyder says. She didn't hesitate. “I said, ‘Yes, we’re going to finish it this time.’”
Tearing it down
The idea of collectively moving homes away from the water's edge is called managed retreat and typically involves a government agency buying up private land from homeowners who might otherwise find it difficult to resell homes situated in flood zones near rivers, far from the desirable coastal regions. As a condition of getting federal money, the local or state governments are prohibited from building or developing those lands in the future.
Instead, they will go wild, or transform into parks, playgrounds, or gardens, which will in turn help absorb the surges from any future storms, sponging up nature’s fury before it can whack its way inland.
“It’s always top-down,” Tirone says of the process. “The government looks at the history of the neighborhood, the last storm that happened, then they’ll pick the areas that will be bought out.” But in Staten Island’s case, the people made their case to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, mapping out the locations and houses that wanted a buyout. The funds came through HUD's Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program, and were administered by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery*. The bottom-up nature of the effort surprised just about everyone.
In 2013, Liz Koslov was a Ph.D. student in media, culture, and communication at New York University and planned to relocate to write her thesis about buyout programs. Suddenly, after Sandy, there was an opportunity to study a case close to home. She heard about the meeting in Staten Island to discuss managed retreat.
“I went, expecting urban planners and officials to say, ‘We shouldn’t rebuild these areas,’ and to have residents saying, ‘No way, get out of our neighborhood,” Koslov recalls. That’s what had happened in New Orleans in 2005 after Katrina. “I walked into the room, and it was 100 people saying, ‘Please buy us out. We don’t want to live here anymore.’”
Koslov, now a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, says that the residents who participated by and large thought of it as a sacrifice for the greater good, driven by a public-servant mentality ingrained in the first responders, sanitation workers, and firefighters who make up a large proportion of the island’s population. “People would talk about it as an investment in making their community stronger. They thought, if a bunch of us agree to go, then the people who live farther inland will be that much safer.”
Not for everyone
Presenting a united front was the key to getting the attention of the governor’s office. It was also crucial in determining the buyout areas. Local activists like Tirone gathered information about which homeowners wanted to be in the program and mapped out properties. Large numbers of contiguous parcels willing to be sold were appealing to the state, which can more easily manage a single large swath of land than several patchwork lots.
The program is voluntary. If people living in one of the buyout areas don’t want to sell, they don’t have to. Some residents chose to simply stay put. Others decided to go with a New York City-funded program that provides funds to restore and elevate homes. Others wanted to apply but couldn’t sell their homes to the state while their lenders still held the title.
People who did pursue buyouts were offered an amount based on an independent appraisal of their property. The figure varied based on the condition and size of their home and lot.
In all, the state has bought 303 houses in Oakwood Beach using federal funds, and 223 houses have been demolished so far. Inspired by Oakwood Beach, smaller buyouts in nearby Ocean Breeze and Graham Beach have resulted in 192 more houses purchased, 88 of which were demolished. In Ocean Breeze, some of the homes had front doors entirely below street level. “It’s like living in a bowl surrounded by a swamp, with water on the other side.” Bova-Hiatt says.
These communities had some of the most affordable housing in New York City, and with the buildings gone, that’s 495 households that need 495 other places to live, and 495 households that can’t pay property or income tax, a not-insubstantial blow to the local government.
Recognizing that, the state offered a 5 percent bonus on top of the offer to anyone willing to relocate to another place on Staten Island. Snyder took them up on it and moved only slightly inland, to another part of Oakwood. Her daughter, however, had to go to Pennsylvania to find an affordable place. That migration is a key concern of people who want to find other ways to deal with storms beyond retreating from them.
It’s simply not practical to relocate every New York City resident who lives in a flood zone. Four of the city’s five boroughs are located on islands. Some 400,000 people live in areas that have a 1-in-100 chance of flooding in a given year.
“We will never have the money to do that,” says Michael Marrella, director of waterfront and open-space planning at the New York City Department of City Planning. Instead, city and state programs encourage homeowners to elevate their houses above flood-zone level.
Meanwhile, property values in storm-ravaged areas have rebounded and then some. People are willing to buy, thinking that the low price justifies the risk.
“My agents have sold houses in this area,” Tirone says. “They talk to people, making sure they know that this is where Hurricane Sandy hit. They all understand, but they think it's a 100-year storm that won’t happen again. They don’t care because it's a bargain compared with other areas. This demand is just bizarre, and it's not being controlled by anything.” He’s pushing for legislation that will require storm-hit properties to carry a disclosure warning future buyers about the history.
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Destruction and Rebirth
With a few houses still occupied in the buyout zone, the state tries to be a good neighbor. Small teams of landscapers push lawnmowers across the vacant lots, drawing sideways glances from the wild turkeys that have moved in. At one townhouse, where brown tendrils of vines creep up the vinyl siding, a group of construction workers in steel-toed boots, jeans, and safety goggles learns how to use a Sawzall, a machine-powered saw. The workers are a part of Rebuilding Together NYC, a nonprofit partnering with the Office of Storm Recovery to give low-income city residents a chance to learn construction skills. The vacant houses are a perfect training ground—a slip-up won’t have many consequences. The trainees are tasked with pulling out any valuable material from the home, saving granite countertops, copper wiring, and light fixtures—anything that might have value on the resale market.
When they’re finished, demolition crews will bulldoze the building and carefully remove the debris. Some of that material will be sent to landfills, but steel, rebar, and concrete will be separated out and recycled. Then the lot will be regraded and surrounded with straw bales to prevent erosion.
Eventually, when this phase of the program is complete, the basic infrastructure of society— sewer pipes, electrical lines, roads, and sidewalks—will be pulled up and out of unoccupied areas, and erased from maps.
The ultimate goal is to transfer the properties to the city or other custodial groups by 2022. In September, the city council adopted a zoning measure that will help limit construction in the buyout areas. Even with the zoning change, former residents are wary. Snyder says she knows that builders and developers are salivating over the open land.
“I’ll be laying across the road in front of the bulldozers,” Snyder says of any potential development scheme. “We’ll be putting up a wall of people to block them from building if they find a loophole.”
Bova-Hiatt’s team is working with local groups to come up with the best open-space uses for the vacant land. Back at the VFW post, adjacent lots will become an expanded picnic area. The townhouses where the construction apprentices are learning their trade will be replaced by facilities for the Staten Island Soccer League. The organization has provided players ages 4-18 with organized soccer leagues for 30 years without ever having a permanent home. Now, it will have two full-size soccer fields, four smaller practice fields, and a playground for the neighborhood.
“Our league was really hit hard by Sandy," says Rob Libertelli, vice president of the League. "Now we get a new shot. What happened was devastating, but what this is going to do for 6,000 kids is just a diamond in the rough.”
Across the street from the athletic fields, the bulk of the Oakwood Beach purchase will be given over to wetlands. There, wildland experts hope they can eventually drive back the reeds—actually invasive phragmites—that serve as tinder for wildfires.
“There are native species that have held on,” says Marit Larson, chief of the Natural Resources Group of the NYC Parks Department, citing as examples slender blue iris, northern gamma grass, groundnut, Turks-cap-lily, and the cinnamon fern. The parks department has provided hundreds of pounds of seeds of native plants and grasses to the Office of Storm Recovery to try to tip the balance.
The battle between native and invasive plants is yet to come. As are the soccer fields, official designation of parks, and myriad government negotiations for exactly how the open space will be used. For now, the locals are still remembering the past, even as they look toward the future.
“Every year about this time we all have to relive what we went through,” Snyder says. “Every time there’s a hurricane that comes up the coast or devastates Texas, Florida, Louisiana, or Puerto Rico, we all feel for these people because we’ve all been through it. It’s something that never leaves you.”
She still remembers the people and the things she’s lost. Items passed down from parents and grandparents, mementos from when her daughter was in kindergarten. Her home. Her brother. “You don’t lose the memories, but there’s a lot of stuff that I can never replace,” Snyder says.
She still walks down to her old neighborhood every few weeks to see the new flora and fauna, the rabbits, deer, even a whiff of skunk periodically. “It’s nice to see the wildlife in the area. It gives all of us a little comfort, seeing that.” Snyder says.
- This story has been updated to reflect that HUD was the funding agency for the GOSR buyouts and acquisitions program. FEMA runs a similar Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.