After Sandy, resilience for some means rebuilding somewhere else

Nearly an entire neighborhood takes a state buyout, effectively handing its devastated land back to nature

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.”

Establishing a trend?

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.

It’s built into our culture. We take pride in toughing it out, in building back stronger. After disasters, we make T-shirts that say ‘I survived.’

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.

An abandoned swimming pool in low-lying Oakwood Beach on Staten Island's southeastern shore, Oct. 2, 2013.
Kathy Willens/AP

‘I could finally exhale’

The day after Frank Langello was rescued by a neighbor that October, Samantha Langello returned to see what was left of Fox Beach. Some houses had vanished, while pieces of others were strewn among the phragmites, on roofs and inside other houses. The National Guard was on her street, and so was the New York Police Department; three neighbors had died, including the man with the easy smile who delivered the weekly coupon circular. Standing outside her house, she could see the floors and ceilings of her basement and living room stacked like pancakes. Much of the drywall had been eaten away by the saltwater, exposing the house’s electrical and plumbing innards.

They had worked for a year to piece together the financing to buy the house. If it had been worth anything at all after Sandy, it would have been only a small fraction of what they had paid. Their insurance, which included flood insurance required by their mortgage holder, would not cover all the damage. And even if they repaired the house, they would never be able to recoup what they had paid for it or what they had put in to fix it. They felt as if they were drowning.

Then in November, a neighborhood meeting was called. After a 1992 nor’easter severely flooded the community, neighbors formed a flood-victim group that remained somewhat active, enough so that the community was able to mobilize relatively quickly. Joe Tirone, a real estate agent who owned one of the homes, attended. Because he bought the house in cash, he had not been required to have flood insurance, and he had already begun researching buyouts. After he told the Fox Beach residents what he had learned, it became clear many of the other residents were similarly interested.   

They began to work together toward the goal of being bought out by the state. Their efforts were successful. After Cuomo announced the state’s plan to buy out properties, Fox Beach was the first community offered the option.

“I could finally exhale,” said Samantha Langello, describing her reaction to the news that they would be bought out. She credits Tirone’s leadership.

Tirone credits Cuomo, who served as the Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Bill Clinton, for knowing how to navigate the funding of the buyouts — drawing on what he learned from the slow-going buyouts offered to small upstate towns after Hurricane Irene — to create a process that residents of Fox Beach have so far been satisfied with.

As of today, 15 Fox Beach residents have closed on their buyout deals. Another 50 are expected to be done by the anniversary of Sandy this week. The Langellos have a closing date of Nov. 1.

Challenging the narrative

At a news conference with Cuomo in April discussing the state’s post-Sandy efforts, Sen. Charles Schumer said that, other than a handful of people who want to relocate, most people wanted to rebuild.

“I think that’s great,” he said. “That shows the spirit of New York.”

He was alluding to the grit New Yorkers are often celebrated for and to an American ideal of indefatigable resolve in the face of challenges.

“It’s built into our culture. We take pride in toughing it out, in building back stronger,” said David Salvesen, deputy director at the Center for Sustainable Community Design at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “After disasters, we make T-shirts that say ‘I survived.’”

Even though it’s a foggy term that can mean different things, resilience — with its positive imprimatur — is often understood to mean rebuilding. Whereas re-evaluating the costs and benefits of living in hazard-prone areas is considered retreat.

In June at the unveiling of a voluminous report detailing New York City’s assessment of Sandy’s impact and the risks posed by climate change, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that despite the threat of rising sea levels and the possibility of storms worse than Sandy, the city should continue to build along the waterfront but build better.

“As New Yorkers, we cannot and will not abandon our waterfront,” he said. “We must protect it, not retreat from it.”

It is more resilient that we started fresh.

Earlier, Bloomberg had revealed his own plan to acquire damaged homes, but at post-Sandy prices, which allows the city to redevelop the properties.

“Retreat sounds inherently un-American,” said Rutherford H. Platt, a professor emeritus of geography at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Indeed, climate migration has not been a part of the American experience as much as it has in other parts of the world, where the costs in the aftermath of disaster are too great to allow for an assumption of the same risk again, especially where there are no government subsidies to mitigate those costs.  

But this might be changing — flood-insurance premiums are going up (as per changes made to the National Flood Insurance Program under the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act), and repeated flooding and its trauma are convincing people they’d rather be called wimps than experience that suffering again.

“We use words like ‘retreat’ and ‘conquer storm’ and ‘control river.’ — That concept is evolving from controlling nature to living with it, but these aren’t easy things to do,” said Salvesen.

Platt added, “‘Adaptation’ might be a better term, which would cover both strategies of making buildings less flood prone wherever they are located by moving up vertically or providing some kind of shore protection or moving inland and abandoning a structure or moving it.”

Similarly, the meaning of “resilience” continues to expand. The word no longer describes just people; planners, developers and politicians talk about resilient buildings, communities and cities as well.

“You have to answer what resilience means differentially at different scales,” said James Kendra, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “For example, a community has some geographic location. So community resilience means building back or building better, being less vulnerable. At a household level, that might mean taking a buyout or not, as in the middle class, the house is a principal way of transmitting wealth. As we shift to more virtual kinds of social systems, that assessment also shifts.”

And what resilience in the face of Sandy-like disasters looks like might also be changing as people who have to bear the consequences of tempting nature break away from the groupthink.

Samantha Langello, after reading critical comments on articles she saw online about Sandy and the buyouts, vehemently defended her choice as a form of resilience.

“It is more resilient that we started fresh,” she said. “I didn’t lie down and roll over because I walked away from my home. I picked myself up. I put a roof over my kids’ head within days of the storm. I didn’t stand here with my hand out. I acted. And I made the situation better for my family.  

“That’s resilience to me.”

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