Joe Monte's abandoned Oakwood Beach dream house, boarded up behind overgrown plants, Oct. 2, 2013.Kathy Willens/AP
On the night of Oct. 29, 2012, with the Atlantic’s waters quickly rising inside his bungalow home in the Fox Beach section of Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, N.Y., Frank Langello fled to the attic, aware that if the waters rose any more, he would be trapped. But he didn’t know what else to do. As Superstorm Sandy bore down, he had stayed behind rather than abandon his family’s pets, and now he listened in the darkness as the walls below collapsed under the weight of the ocean pressing against them.
Both the nor’easter of 2010 and Hurricane Irene of 2011 had flooded the basement and left the Langellos without heat or hot water for weeks, but this was another thing entirely. Now he could feel the house swaying with Sandy’s gusts. He was certain the surging water would soon carry the whole edifice away, drowning all of them together — man, dogs and cat.
On the phone to his wife, Samantha Langello — who had evacuated with their two small children only hours before — he cried, “We’re done. We’re never coming back here again.”
They never did.
For the past year, the Langellos have lived as far inland and as high uphill as they could afford on Staten Island. As Samantha Langello evaluated the elevation of potential rentals, she uttered to herself so frequently, “Water runs downhill,” that soon her 6-year-old son could be heard parroting the mantra.
They will never have to return to Fox Beach, thanks to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s buyout program. He announced the buyouts in late February, and Fox Beach was the first Sandy-stricken area to be offered the option: Sell your destroyed home to the state at predisaster value (with additional incentives to make moving on easier) and the state will demolish it and not allow the land to be redeveloped.
This program freed the Langellos of the economic constraints that often force people to rebuild in the same location after an environmental disaster. In fact, the entire neighborhood of Fox Beach is not coming back. All but one of the 185 households in the once thriving working-class community have taken the buyout.
What was a vibrant and friendly community — where at one end children played football in the street and at the other, immigrant Italian grandparents grew tomatoes, squash, figs and persimmons — will eventually disappear. Since these properties can’t be redeveloped, they will be left to revert to nature, which already appears eager to move in; reeds, no longer bound by the fences that were swept away a year ago, now reach 12 feet tall, and grass peeks up through foundations of houses pushed off from where they had stood for decades.
An entire community taking a buyout is not unprecedented. Still, what happens and how in Fox Beach is likely to be watched very closely as a potential model that embraces an idea — managed retreat — that is gaining currency after having lost out 20 years ago to unfettered coastal development, redefining along the way what resilience means in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“The intervals between disasters used to be longer,” said Scott Gabriel Knowles, a professor at Drexel University and the author of “The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America.” Of the 10 most devastating hurricanes in the U.S., nine have occurred in the last 10 years.
“We are not living a long stretch of normal life in between disaster,” he said. “We are living in disaster.”
He also points out that in the post–World War II era, more and more Americans are moving to the coasts — 39 percent of the U.S. population now resides there. The sheer level of development along coastal areas, he explained, has increased the frequency of disaster losses.
“The power of the real estate development growth complex is as big as it gets,” Knowles said. “So when government and people stand up to them, there’s maybe a new reality dawning that we cannot just keep doing this.”
Most buyouts — like the New York state program — are 75 percent funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and 25 percent by state and local governments. In New York, Cuomo set aside $400 million to buy out Sandy-damaged properties.
Since the early 1970s, voluntary buyouts have been used, though not often, to encourage people in areas prone to repeat flooding to move out or to ensure undeveloped properties remain vacant permanently. But it was not until the devastating flooding in the Midwest in 1993 that government acquisition of flood-prone properties began in earnest.
Buyouts represent a different strategy of hazard mitigation from other flood-control measures, including structural devices such as dams, levees and floodwalls, or the National Flood Insurance Program, which requires homeowners in risk areas to share the costs of potential future disasters by paying into the system pre-emptively. Despite the billions spent on such measures, flood losses continue to mount.
But the effectiveness of buyouts, in terms of money and lives saved, has been tested by subsequent flooding. For example, after 1993 Midwest floods, FEMA estimated that $30 million in flood damage was avoided when the same areas flooded again in 1995.
Buyouts are voluntary. Often it comes down to individual families deciding what makes the most sense for them. For an entire community to take a buyout is rare and requires unity and a collective desire to move, said Jack Rozdilsky, a professor of emergency management at Western Illinois University. For years he has followed the small town of Valmeyer, Ill., which after the 1993 floods took a buyout and used the money to move the entire town together to higher and safer land. Twenty years later, the population has increased from 900 to 1,200 and is growing. Old Valmeyer has since been reclaimed by nature, as will likely happen in Fox Beach, though Rozdilsky said a visitor might still see a hint of a linear street grid or an occasional mailbox or streetlight poking out through the long grasses.
But Valmeyer was the exception. Most of the other Midwestern towns rebuilt, taking measures to mitigate damage from flooding.
Fox Beach, Rozdilsky said, has the potential to establish a trend.
“If we can do buyouts in these dense areas, then we can do it in other parts of the country. If it could work in Staten Island, then it can work in other hazard-prone areas like the Gulf Coast, Texas.”
Of course, the other costs involved in buyouts — such as the social ones of scattering a community and breaking often long-established bonds — are much harder to quantify. The Langellos plan to move back to their native Pennsylvania, which regrettably means giving up their neighbors.
“I wish I could just move everyone with me,” Samantha Langello said.