Fox Beach fades to green
After Superstorm Sandy, Staten Island neighbors give their homes to Nature
Photos by Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America
Produced by Alex Newman
The home of Leonard Montalto, who died in the storm, is still marked with police tape, above.
Published on Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Patti Snyder was 8 when her family moved into a white bungalow a stone’s throw from the sea. Her Italian immigrant father wanted his children to have the opportunity to regularly enjoy what for years he had known only on vacations.
Located in the borough of Staten Island in New York, Fox Beach was the sort of neighborhood where teachers, firefighters, cops and sanitation workers could have their own version of the good life, digging for clams on Midland Beach, fishing for stripers off the pier. Snyder and her brother wanted the same life for their children, so they stayed put, with her brother, Lenard Montalto, raising three daughters in the house he grew up in, Snyder raising her family in a house just down the block. When her daughter moved out of the house, she bought a house on the same block.
Two years ago, Superstorm Sandy changed everything. While Snyder and the rest of her clan evacuated, Montalto stayed behind. Previously in wild weather, their house had taken in a few inches of water in the basement, and he wanted to make sure the pump worked.
When the floodwaters receded, he was nowhere to be found.
After two days of frantic searching, authorities found his body in the basement of the house that had been the lodestar of three generations. He had drowned.
So when Snyder’s house was demolished this summer, she was ready. So were her neighbors. Forty homes in Fox Beach were razed last year, and 200 or so houses will follow — all part of an extraordinarily well-wrought grass-roots campaign to push the state government to buy their homes and return Fox Beach to nature.
If a house is standing in Fox Beach now, it will have a notice of demolition stapled to the front door, with boards over the windows.
“When I first saw all of the homes boarded up like that, I thought, ‘My god, what have we done?’” Snyder says. “But it was the right choice. When we found my brother, I knew that I would never go back. No one should live out there.”
(Previous coverage of Fox Beach)
Joseph Tirone, a local real estate developer who owned a parcel on Fox Beach Avenue, took the lead researching recent buyout cases due to flooding in upstate New York and Nashville, Tennessee. He says a visit to Fox Beach by then–City Council Speaker Christine Quinn made it clear that city assistance might be slow.
But it became clear that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s history as Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary of might play in Fox Beach’s favor, since he had experience with disaster recovery. About a year after Sandy, the state utilized community development block grants (CDBGs) and HUD money to purchase the homes at prestorm prices as part of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).
In 2016 the Federal Emergency Management Agency will rewrite the national flood insurance maps, doubling the number of households in the New York metro area that fall within the 100- year-flood zone. For those living in areas considered at high-risk for flooding, insurance will be mandatory and expensive as premiums are set to rise, as per the controversial Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012. What this means for low- to middle-income residents living in flood-prone areas remains to be seen.
The federally administered HMGP was designed to reduce the loss of life and property in the face of regularly recurring natural disasters. Whether the rising sea level qualifies as a regularly recurring disaster is still unclear. Over the past five years, the federal government has spent more than $77 billion dollars on addressing climate change, and yet Congress still hasn’t passed a major piece of legislation to deal specifically with the effects of rising sea levels.
As a result of ocean warming and melting ice sheets, over the next 40 years, the ocean around New York City is predicted to rise anywhere from 11 to 31 inches, doubling the number of city residents vulnerable to flooding and greatly increasing the risk to those living in areas that already flood. HMGP grants are being used, albeit in what some say is a frustratingly piecemeal fashion, throughout the city to either provide money to elevate and floodproof existing structures or to purchase homes in high-risk communities so that they can be demolished and the land returned to its natural state.
Fox Beach residents are not quick to blame their predicament on climate change. Being the one Republican-majority borough in New York City has something to do with that. But Snyder will refer to nature as a powerful character in her Sandy story. In fact, embracing the reality that nature was the only safe tenant in her neighborhood helped Snyder decide to take a buyout.
“If the land wasn’t going back to nature, watching my house be demolished would have been very hard to swallow,” she says.
Eddie Perez, who lived a few blocks from Snyder and barely survived Sandy flooding, says he’s up on global warming. But he says long before modern climate change terms were used, floods were part of life around Fox Beach.
“Nature cleans itself up. It doesn’t need man to do anything,’’ he says. “So whoever lives by the water and they love it, they’re taking a big risk. It’s coming.”
Tirone says tapping into people’s relationships to local nature was integral to getting Fox Beach residents to take buyouts. An element of fairness was also at play. If hardworking middle-class folks were giving up their beachfront houses only to have them land in the hands of developers, then no deal. He says residents were concerned, wondering, “Are they gonna build a high rise? Are they gonna get the rich people in here?”
But once he could prove the houses were going back to nature, the response was swift. “I can’t tell you how many people said to me, ‘OK, you’re sure this is being returned to nature, I will do this.’”
Nature aside, Fox Beach residents all had personal reasons for taking the buyouts too.
For Snyder, her brother’s death made up her mind. Tirone didn’t want to continue to put his renters in harm’s way. Rostyslav Rozhanskyy says that if he stayed, his house would be worthless, so he had no choice but to take the money being offered and move. Danielle Mancuso was happy to move away from the sewage treatment center that a real estate agent told her on closing day was a water plant. Others know that rising insurance premiums would soon price them out of the neighborhood they have long called home.
Some are staying nearby, since the city is offering a 5 percent closing bonus should residents relocate in New York City. Others like Danielle Mancuso, who moved to Goshen, New York, have moved upstate. “There is no ocean in Goshen, I like to say,” she says. All have relocated to higher ground.
Snyder is moving a mile inland to Acorn Street.
Rebecca Sinclair, director of buyouts and acquisitions in the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, emphasizes that Fox Beach was remarkable because “when they approached the state, they had a 100 percent interest rate,” making it easier on the government to approve the buyout, which would undoubtedly cause the property value in the neighborhood to plummet.
But not every community that wanted a buyout got one, and in those that did, some are not moving forward. As memories of Sandy fade, a handful of Fox Beach’s residents have changed their minds and are opting, for the time being, to stay put. Some cite financial reasons; others, who have lived on Fox Beach for most of their lives, are finding it more difficult than they expected to leave what they long felt qualified as their personal slice of paradise.
Seen from the air, Fox Beach looks out of place — five parallel streets on eastern Staten Island, spindly fingers of land surrounded by a saltwater marsh. Three miles inland, at the College of Staten Island, Alan Benimoff, a professor of geology, is preparing a talk on resiliency and sea level rise. “Take a look at this map,” he says as he pulls up an image of the island’s eastern shore that he has compiled from various data sets, including current elevation, ownership, historic zoning and turn-of-the-century topography.
Most of the land is coded red, which means it lies no more than 10 feet above sea level. But some is shaded light blue, making it difficult to distinguish from the sea. Benimoff zooms in on the ethereal tint that covers the Fox Beach neighborhood like tidewater. A dialog box pops up. “Blue means the area is zoned as a wetland,” he explains.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy’s floodwaters reshaped Staten Island’s eastern shore, killing 24 people. Benimoff has plotted each of the storm-related deaths on his map. Unsurprisingly, many of the markers appear in wetlands-turned-coastal-property. “If you ask me,” he says, hovering his cursor over the end of Fox Beach Avenue, “none of these homes should have been built in the first place.”
As per HMGP regulations, the area where Snyder and her brother grew up is now being returned to the wetlands it once was. This summer, she closed on a 100-year-old farmhouse a little over a mile from the house where she grew up.
“It is beginning to feel like home,” Snyder says, after two years of living out of boxes and suitcases. She recently unpacked a collection of porcelain angels that she hadn’t seen since before Sandy. “I refused to pack up my house after the storm. I just couldn’t deal with it, and now I am being reunited with things I didn’t know I still had. Even though the wings of my angels were caked in the muck, I was glad to see them and to realize that they hadn’t been lost.”
Could the death and destruction that blew in to Fox Beach with Sandy have been avoided? Tirone believes if there’s blame to be placed, it’s probably with local government, which zoned for new construction in areas along Staten Island’s waterfront that are precarious.
“Some people will say, ‘Yeah, well, that’s hindsight. That’s great. You’re a genius,’” he says. “After the storm, you can say stuff like that. But talk to the people who lived here. And you can get a sense from them.”
For proof, walk up Kissam Avenue, past demolished houses and up to the end of Mill Street, with its abandoned row houses, barely a decade old, and mailbox doors hanging open. Algae blossoms in unused aboveground swimming pools. A beach ball blows down an otherwise abandoned lane. Only the surrounding marsh grass stirs. Even in Staten Island, New York City’s forgotten borough, the quiet is eerie. And yet somehow it is beautiful too. A bone-white egret flies overhead, and family of snow geese, many of them still young, waddles past.