Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to spend up to $400 million to buy and demolish homes wrecked by Sandy and permanently preserve the land as undeveloped coastline, an idea that received generally positive reviews Monday from New Yorkers in some of the storm's hardest hit communities.
"A lot of people need that help," said Long Beach resident Tom Mannion. Homes in the Long Island oceanfront city were inundated with 6 feet or more of water during the height of October's storm.
Mannion described himself as skeptical of government programs, but predicted it will be of interest to many, especially those "people whose houses are wiped out, and they had no insurance. Those people could use that help and I'd like to see them get it."
Cuomo administration spokesman Rich Azzopardi confirmed that the proposal calls for the state to use a portion of the $51 billion disaster relief package approved by Congress last week for the buyouts. The plan, first reported Monday by The New York Times, was presented to federal officials Friday, the spokesman said.
If approved, the program would offer pre-Sandy full market value for homes in the 100-year flood plain substantially damaged by the storm and related flooding. State officials have estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 homeowners might apply. Cuomo earlier raised the buyout proposal and other new measures to protect New York City's underground infrastructure from flooding, which he said has been occurring far more often than once a century.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Bloomberg said buyouts are just one of the options being considered. Others include moving electric and other critical systems to higher ground and increasing protection for coastlines, Lauren Passalacqua said.
U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, a Staten Island Republican who has been supportive in early talks with residents about buyouts, said he supported Cuomo's proposal and will back funding for other mitigation programs like elevating homes.
Certain neighborhoods like Staten Island's Oakwood Beach are "prime candidates for this type of program," he said in a statement.
The residents of that area are also among the most organized and determined to take advantage of the proposal. Joseph Tirone, who leads the neighborhood committee to work toward a buyout, said more than 150 homeowners have indicated they would sell. The group hopes city and state agencies will buy the entire community and allow it to revert to natural wetlands.
Samantha Langello bought her Oakwood Beach home five years ago. A few months after moving in, she said, a brush fire damaged a bulkhead built in the 1990s to protect the neighborhood. Later, she had her first flood during a nor'easter — 4 feet of water in her basement that destroyed a newly built kitchen and brand-new appliances.
Each year since, one storm or another has sent water back in but never as much as Sandy, which submerged the entire first floor.
Langello acknowledged that it was her choice to live in the neighborhood but said her sister had lived three doors away for several years and never had a problem.
"You just don't think of New York as a place for hurricanes to hit," she said. "I wasn't even told until the closing that I was in Flood Zone A."
Langello sees a buyout as perhaps the only way to avoid financial ruin.
"We have no intention of going back whether we get bought out or not," she said. "It's clearly not a safe place to live."
Outside the Long Beach post office, several blocks from where a 2-plus-mile stretch of the Long Beach boardwalk is being rebuilt, Joe Sorise said limits should be placed on where building is permitted. "Some people are extended very far out," he said. "Because of the geographical area and the amount of damage done, I think it's a very good idea."
But not everyone supported the buyouts. Long Island resident Irene Castellano, whose shed and two cars were destroyed by Sandy, was aghast at the idea.
"This is our city. Our houses make up our city and our people make up our city," she said. "They're going to rip down those houses and not rebuild? That means those people are going to go away more than likely."
Castellano said people should stick it out. "It's been done before, time and time again, from the time my grandfather was here in the '30s and the ocean met the bay and everything was decimated. We came back," she said. "Why not live near the water, where it's beautiful, and hope that it doesn't hit again?"
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said he discussed the program with Cuomo last week.
"It's a program that should be considered and, if applied correctly, will actually enhance neighborhoods and protect the public's health safety and welfare," Mangano said.
He also said he was not worried about a significant impact on the county tax base, saying those participating could like number in the dozens. "We're not expecting whole neighborhoods, but rather smaller, flooded pockets of areas that may qualify."
Homeowners who choose to relocate within their home county would get an additional 5 percent incentive under the proposed buyout.
Brendan C. Gilfillan, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said officials are discussing the disbursement of HUD disaster recovery grants.
Virtanen reported from Albany. Associated Press writer Eileen AJ Connelly contributed to this report from New York City.