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A Tale Of Two Coastal Towns Part 1: Staten Island

Elizabeth Rush

Low-lying coastal areas are the front lines for sea level rise, and increasingly frequent and destructive storms at sea. Hurricane Sandy proved it’s not just the South or the Gulf Coast at risk. Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs, saw heavy flooding after Hurricane Sandy, which hit two years ago this month.

The way Eddie Perez tells it, the night of October 29, 2012 played out like one of those movies about the apocalypse. "About 7:55 I was watching the news and they said at 8 o’clock it was coming"

By “it”, Perez, a Staten Islander, meant Hurricane Sandy. And come it did, first slowly into Fox’s low-lying oceanfront neighborhood, and then, "BOOM and it knocked that door right down.”

Credit Elizabeth Rush
Eddie Perez prepares to leave his home after taking a buyout due to Hurricane Sandy damage.

Perez literally acts out that terrible night, running up and down his front steps, and into the road. He points to specific trees and neighbors’ houses like props in his Hurricane Sandy play. "So I'm standing here, I'm going 'Help! Help!, Help!' Nobody's around, so I go, 'okay, I'm going to die here.'"

Perez survived by scaling a tree. A few of his neighbors drowned in their homes.

For most of its history, Eddie Perez’s neighborhood, known as Fox Beach, was simply a small group of seaside summer cottages. In the 1950s and 60s a few residents began to retrofit the tiny bungalows for year-round use, and a group of working class families planted their feet and futures.

Joe Tirone owned a small lot on Fox Beach Avenue that he rented out. "They were like, this is paradise. And they were buying at a slight discount from the rest of the island, and the reason there was a discount was really because of the danger of where you were."

The surrounding area was beaches and wetlands. The area also was a haven for an invasive grass, phragmites, that can grow up to 15 feet high. Those grasses fueled numerous wildfires in the area over the decades. In 1992 a nor’easter created a storm surge that left 3 to 5 feet of water and mud in homes around Fox Beach. This prompted the state to consider turning Fox Beach completely over to nature. 

But development interests also had their eyes on the area. They bought both vacant and occupied lots to build on says Tirone, "and then once the lots were purchased, they were kind of protected by the local officials here saying, 'look, these guys are innocent. They're buying these lots, they have the right to make money.'"

Credit Elizabeth Rush
Nature is taking back the Fox Beach neighborhood of Staten Island after residents took a home buyout due to Hurricane Sandy damage.

The developers won that round. More than a decade later nature visibly won the bigger battle. Two multi-level 4,000-square-foot houses sit adjacent from each other along Fox Beach Avenue. They are completely boarded up and abandoned. Fields of phragmites grasses are starting to creep up on both structures.

Joe Tirone says Fox Beach residents battled nature for years and years, Sandy was the last straw. “This was the knockout punch,” he says, and there were also plenty ofexamples around the country that should have inspired a moratorium on building in low lying coastal areas like Fox Beach.

“If we've learned anything from Katrina, maybe that would have avoided a lot of these homes from being flooded,” he says.

On a Saturday afternoon on Fox Beach Avenue, Bill Bye sits idling in his town car, working through a pack of cigarettes, talking to Joe Tirone. Bye likes to drive around his old neighborhood every few months to see if his house of 30 years is still standing, “this is weird, driving around here, all these houses gone, all these people.”

Three weeks after Sandy hit, Bye, Tirone and a few hundred other Fox Beach residents held a formal meeting. Towards the end of the night, Tirone took a poll: if the community could orchestrate a buyout for their homes, would they leave? Nearly everybody in the room raised their hands. Tirone remembers one resident saying, "I'm walking down these steps, I ain't never going back in this house again. Never in my life am I going back in this house."

A lot of things came together quickly after that first meeting. Tirone researched how communities in Nashville and up-state New York orchestrated federal buyouts after devastating floods. His Fox Beach proposal was accepted by New York State in February 2013, three months after Sandy.

As the buyout loomed, some of the residents, like Patti Snyder, got nervous. She wanted to know what the state was going to do with her land. “If the land wasn’t going back to nature, watching my house be demolished would have been very hard to swallow,” Snyder lost her brother and two neighbors to Sandy. She says she needed to know that the state wouldn’t allow anyone to rebuild in Fox Beach and live in harm's way again.

Snyder and her neighbors got pre-storm value for their homes via a $700 million-plus Sandy buyout for New York City and Long Island. Fox Beach is now the newest line of natural defense for Staten Island against storm surge and flooding. Everybody here is incredibly fortunate. Incredibly, incredibly fortunate.

Joe Tirone starts to explain why he’s smiling as he watches what was once a close neighborhood get demolished. But then he pauses. "Look at the egrets, the heron. All the wildlife is coming back, deer, it's just amazing. They just like, 'okay, great, thank you.'"

Tirone is excited to see the original residents of Fox Beach coming back.

Credit Elizabeth Rush
Joe Tirone orchestrated a buyout for the Fox Beach neighborhood on Staten Island after storm surge from Hurricane Sandy destroyed homes.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Kabacoff Family Foundation.

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.