Before Hurricane Sandy, Staten Island’s Fox Beach neighborhood was a tight-knit, working-class community nestled on the Atlantic Ocean just 20 miles south of Manhattan. By this time next year, it will be an expanse of wetlands.
As part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s NY Rising Housing Recovery Program, the entire Fox Beach community has been deemed eligible for a state-sponsored buyout. More than half of the 185 homeowners have already negotiated terms and signed on to sell their houses back to the state at pre-storm value plus ten percent. The remaining half is expected to follow suit in the coming months. They’ll be joined by more than 200 homeowners in neighboring Oakwood Beach and 129 from the nearby community of Ocean Breeze.
Under the buyout program, properties purchased will be maintained as open space or transformed into coastal buffer zones, parks and other non-residential uses that will help protect nearby communities from the impact of extreme weather.
“There are some places that Mother Nature owns,” said Governor Cuomo as he announced the buyout. “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.”
Of course, this is not the first time Mother Nature visited Fox Beach. Longtime residents remember the Nor’easters of 1992, 1993 and 2011, as well as Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Floyd in 1999 and Irene in 2011. Each of those storms flooded the community’s streets and damaged its homes, but neighbors came back and rebuilt, and no one was offered a buyout. So what made this time different?
Certainly, the damage was greater. The water was higher, and three people from Fox Beach died in the storm. Also, Hurricane Sandy came close on the heels of Hurricane Irene and a potent Nor’easter. Both New York City and New York State had resiliency on the brain, and the low-lying oceanfront communities of Staten Island on their radar. The biggest change, however, may be the tireless efforts of a local real estate broker and investor named Joe Tirone.
Immediately after the storm, Tirone, who owned a rental bungalow in Fox Beach, joined his neighbors in the quest for disaster assistance. Somewhere amidst the phone calls and forms, he ended up in a conversation with a FEMA employee who’d recently worked in Nashville. Along with reams of paperwork came mention of the government-funded buyout that followed that city’s 2010 flood.
Oakwood Beach, one of the Staten Island neighborhoods where residents are being bought out by the government. Photo credit: David Berkowitz via Flickr
“I knew Fox Beach had history of flooding, and it’d now become apparent that it was a dangerous place, so a buyout at a favorable price started to look like a good deal,” says Tirone. “So I went to a meeting with my neighbors at this church. We were finished talking about food, blankets and essentials when I asked how many people would be interested in a buyout at pre-storm value. Everyone raised their hand.”
Ever since that meeting, what’s now known as the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee has met at least once a week to work out the details of dismantling their community. “First I called FEMA in Nashville to ask how their program worked. Then I found out about a buyout in the town of Jay, New York, in the Adirondacks, which sustained significant damage in Hurricane Irene. They told me what worked for them, and I reported back, and we started to talk to local electeds.”
Tirone first sought assistance from city officials, but soon found his way to the Governor’s office. He got a meeting and showed the attendees a list of 185 neighbors who were interested in a buyout.
“Talking with folks from the city, it seemed like I knew more about buyouts than they did. They wanted redevelopment, but the governor got it immediately. He understood from handling Jay, New York, and from his time as HUD secretary.”
On February 25, just four months after Sandy, Governor Cuomo announced the buyout plan for Fox Beach. Three months later, the state had appraised the properties. Three months after that, they’d issued the first buyout check.
In Jay, the buyout process took nearly twice as long, leaving homeowners in limbo and significantly decreasing participation in the program. Eighty homeowners expressed interest originally, but only 40 took the buyout. “A two-year process is too long,” says Randy Douglas, the town supervisor of Jay.
In Fox Beach, 185 property owners expressed interest and 184 have agreed to a buyout. In Oakwood Beach and Ocean Breeze, where the timeline has been furthered condensed, retention rates are similarly encouraging.
“We were very fortunate,” says Tirone. “It is a terrible ordeal economically and emotionally, and it’s hard to recover, but the community was organized and the governor was ready to move quickly.”
“In Jay, Nashville and New Orleans,” he adds, “the buyouts took two or three years. Every day it drags on just makes it harder. The wait-and-see approach doesn’t work.”
Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b