NY Taps Sandy-Damaged Staten Island for Buyouts

So far, 141 of the roughly 200 homeowners in the targeted area have asked for a buyout

By EILEEN AJ CONNELLY
|  Monday, Feb 25, 2013  |  Updated 7:47 PM EDT
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FILE - In a Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012 file photo, Joe Vanvaketis climbs out of his home, which was severely damaged by Sandy, after trying to recover some personal items while his wife Inez Vanvaketis watches in the Oakwood Beach section of Staten Island.

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A Staten Island neighborhood where three people died during Sandy will be the first to get state-sponsored home buyouts.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined the planned program during a visit to the borough on Monday.

In remarks made as part of a statewide tour following up on his State of the State address, Cuomo discussed efforts to recover from the devastating late October storm, including plans to rebuild with mitigation measures in place to avoid future damage.

"Let's also recognize that there are some places that Mother Nature owns," Cuomo told the audience at the College of Staten Island. "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.

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"I want to be there for people and communities who want to say, 'I'm going to give this parcel back to Mother Nature.'"

Oakwood Beach, a low-lying oceanfront neighborhood, is one of those areas, the governor said.

"It's been damaged time and time again," he said. "It is in a situation that is very vulnerable."

The neighborhood was swamped with about 12 feet of water during the Oct. 29 storm, which did damage in at least 10 states but hit New York and New Jersey the hardest. Several homes were lifted off their foundations and dumped, in pieces, into the marshland that surrounds the streets. Others were inundated where they stood, including those of Leonard Montalto and John Filipowicz Sr. and his 20-year-old son, John Filipowicz Jr.

The three were among the 23 people killed on Staten Island, which accounted for more than half the 43 deaths in New York City attributed to the storm.

The tightly packed streets of Oakwood Beach were first populated in the 1930s with wooden beach bungalows. Most of those structures were later converted to year-round homes, while some were replaced with larger dwellings.

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But the community has repeatedly flooded, especially since 1992, when a nor'easter washed away a berm that had served to hold back the waves. Residents fought for years to have the berm rebuilt and other flood mitigation efforts put in place. Some measures, like a bulkhead that burned in a brush fire, were damaged or destroyed before Sandy. Others were simply overwhelmed by the amount of water pushed ashore by the giant storm, which hit at high tide during a full moon.

Today, the neighborhood remains depopulated, with just a handful of residents back in their houses.

The Democratic governor said 141 homeowners from the area have asked the state for buyouts. A map provided by the governor's office outlines a buyout area that encompasses about 200 homes.

The area contains the most concentrated group of homeowners in the state seeking buyouts.

The program, which the governor said he would like to make available to other communities, calls for the state to pay 100 percent of the pre-storm value for the homes. Residents who move elsewhere on Staten Island will be eligible for an additional 5 percent bonus. A 10 percent bonus would be made available for homeowners who are vacating property in designated highly vulnerable flood areas.

The state would continue to own the properties, which would be developed for recreational use, Cuomo said.

Joseph Tirone, who leads a neighborhood committee seeking the buyouts, was among five Oakwood Beach homeowners who met with Cuomo and his aides. He said the governor's intention is to have everyone bought out by the end of the year.

For many from the neighborhood, the buyout will be a mixed blessing.

"It will be bittersweet when it comes to fruition," said Montalto's 55-year-old sister, Patty Snyder, who moved to Oakwood Beach as an 8-year-old. "None of us were planning on leaving the area."

Though her brother died, her daughter, grandchildren and other family members escaped.

"We're always going to be in harm's way," Snyder said. "It's more than likely the only solution for that area."

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