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One year later, Oakwood Beach is lost to Sandy

A house at 121 Kissam Ave is seen with its entire first floor washed away, as well as the entire surrounding area demolished when Hurricane Sandy hit the coastal estuary in the Oakwood Beach area of Staten Island, New York, November 6, 2012. 

A year on from Sandy, many communities have at least started the process of repair.  Twenty-five thousand New Yorkers have applied for assistance, mostly to repair homes. But some communities are throwing in the towel entirely. 

Patti Snyder’s home – a one story white bungalow type house – is picturesque. Cute even. An American flag is in the window, and so is a small sign that reads “we don’t dial 911” along with a drawing of a gun pointed outward.

“There were rumors of people looting,” says Snyder.

At this point, there is very little to loot.

“You can already smell must and rot,” she says as she walks to the door to open it.

A cloud of mosquitoes greets us as we walk in.  

A year after Sandy, the home is still gutted. Inside is a skeleton frame of studs and concrete.

Snyder moved out after the storm.

Reentering this place brings back bad memories.

During the storm she lost contact with her husband and her brother in law.  Her son-in-law went out to search for them.

At about four am that night she went to her brother’s house where she found her husband and son in law.

“I said, ‘Where’s my brother?’ The last time I spoke with him he was in the basement. They said he can’t be in the basement cause the water was so high, not knowing he was down there covered in the water and debris. We found him two days later.”  

It was as much reason to move out as the actual storm damage.

“It’ll never be safe [here] as far as I’m concerned.” 

It hasn’t been particularly safe since 1992. Some neighbors closer to the water have been flooded regularly and brushfires often consume the surrounding marsh. Snyder says the government never fully restored berms after a ‘92 nor’easter.

“This area is a problem area,” says Snyder “and there shouldn’t be homes here.”

The state of New York agrees. It set aside up to $400 million to buy homes in communities like Oakwood Beach, where 184 out of 185 homeowners here have applied to get bought out for pre-storm value, plus 10 percent.

Seth Diamond, director of New York State’s Office of Storm Recovery, says the land will not be redeveloped. “That land will be forever vacant. Once we buy the homes, we’ll demolish the home. It’ll provide for a much larger area on Staten Island, a wonderful way to keep the water away in a natural way.”

Basically, sacrifice this neighborhood, possibly save others. 

Frank Lettieri is waiting for his buyout check to arrive. He didn’t want to sell to the government, and in fact - like many residents - he actually rebuilt his home, but now he feels like he has no choice but to sell.

“They’re going to knock all these houses down. We’ll be surrounded by weeds. We can’t be the only ones left,” he says.

There are objections to the government bailing out people who have built in risky areas. That makes Joseph Tirone bristle. He owns a rental property and helped lead his neighbors petition to get bought

“They were never told by real estate agents or builders that built the homes, especially, there was any chance of them having this constant peril.”

He says the buyout will save FEMA money in the long run – not having to repeatedly pay out to save or rebuild homes here. “Where neighborhoods choose not to be bought out the ultimate cost is much greater than a buyout.” 

State officials say it will be a couple of years before the tear down of Oakwood is done, but it’s already well under way. Across the street from Patti Snyder, the government is boarding up homes and people are leaving. “This just knocked the wind out of our sails,” she says. 

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.
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