Writing and reporting by Rachel Mickelson
The force of Hurricane Sandy lifted entire homes off their foundations in Staten Island. Cars floated down streets and settled in backyards. A wastewater plant across the street from one homeowner spilled raw sewage out into the muck and on-rushing seas.
In the storm’s aftermath, Isana Loshinsky spent the evenings looking out her window in the coastal community of Oakwood Beach, wondering if the storm surge that had already engulfed her home in 11 feet of water would rise again and invade her home.
“I can’t tell you how many times I got up in the middle of the night. I didn’t sleep all night…You feel totally small, unprotected, like a little insignificant something compared to all this.”
Loshinsky struggled with post-traumatic stress following Hurricane Sandy. Now, however, she no longer needs to fret about the risks of the next hurricane engulfing her home. A voluntary government buyout of her home provided her family an opportunity to move to safer ground.
For decades, tens of thousands of homes have repeatedly flooded along our nation’s rivers and coasts. Giving homeowners the option to move away from these vulnerable locations is a smart strategy that provides homeowners with a chance for a new start, and saves government insurers the financial responsibility to rebuild time and time again. On average, for every dollar invested in climate mitigation programs such as a buyout, there’s a six dollar return on that investment by avoiding rebuilding.
Helping vulnerable homeowners move out of harm’s way to break the cycle of flood-rebuild-repeat is also an essential infrastructure opportunity for our nation. To become more resilient in the face of rising sea levels and flood risks, communities are deciding where to locate – and relocate—water and sewage treatment plants, roads, bridges, and airports so they will stay safe and dry for decades to come. Communities are also struggling with the same issues related to housing.
Some projections indicate that three to six feet of sea level rise will inundate the homes of 4-13 million Americans. It’s essential that we start providing buyouts as an option for homeowners to move out of harm’s way. NRDC has a proposal to do just that by including a buyout option in flood insurance coverage that would allow homeowners of repeatedly flooded or at-risk properties to pre-qualify for a guaranteed buyout in the future.
But that’s not how buyouts work now. Instead, relocation can be a difficult decision for homeowners, and an even more difficult process to navigate.
NRDC commissioned a survey that received responses from 83 buyout participants who moved away from the coast in Staten Island following Hurricane Sandy. We interviewed 16 of the survey respondents so we could better understand the buyout program and what can be done to make buyouts a more common and timely option in the future.
Each buyout participant interviewed expressed gratitude for having had the opportunity to leave the cycle of flood-rebuild-repeat and begin anew. Participants’ view of the buyout program was positive, with 77 percent reporting they were satisfied or more than satisfied overall. And 88 percent of buyout participants agreed that other homeowners who were offered a buyout should have taken it.
“It looked like the house was in a washing machine.”
Years earlier these homeowners came to Staten Island, excited to begin a life near the water. Many were first-time homebuyers, uninformed of the risk of purchasing in a floodplain. Others weren’t even told they were buying a home in a floodplain in the first place.
In one case, newlyweds eager to move into their first home were blindsided when, while closing on the house, the attorney revealed they were required to purchase flood insurance to finalize the deal.
“Our realtor never disclosed to us that we would need flood insurance,” said Danielle Mancuso. “And here we are at the closing table, and we don’t want to lose our deposit. All of these people are staring at us. So what do we do? We write the check.”
Many of those interviewed from Oakwood Beach, Ocean Breeze, and Graham Beach said they didn’t know their property was at risk of flooding at the time they purchased their homes. Many states don’t legally require realtors or sellers to disclose prior flood-related damages, nor do they require realtors to inform homebuyers they are purchasing in a floodplain and are legally required to purchase flood insurance.
“We were never supposed to be there. It never should have been a residential area.”
Now, five years after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, many home buyout participants wonder how developers were ever allowed to build there in the first place. Mancuso, who researched the history of her neighborhood, reported that the land had at one point been sold for a dollar.
“We lived basically in an estuary,” she said. “What we learned was our home was never supposed to be built there.”
To make matters worse, she discovered after moving that she was living across the street from a wastewater treatment plant, not a water treatment plant, as her realtor had stated. During Sandy, a breach of that plant brought not only ocean, but raw sewage and chemicals like diesel fuel into her neighborhood.
The homes themselves were also vulnerable. “They were these one-story little homes not meant to be lived in year-round,” Mancuso said. “People died because the walls caved in on them.”
Many of the buyout participants questioned the land use decisions that resulted in tragedy following Hurricane Sandy.
“You think when you buy a house that it’s buildable property. It’s not like that.”
Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall on October 29, 2012, took more lives on Staten Island than in any other borough. Survivors faced the daunting task of finding a place to stay. Their homes now uninhabitable, they found temporary living arrangements, sharing homes with family and friends, living in hotels, or renting apartments with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
After the toxic water receded, residents gutted their homes, began the tedious damage appraisal process, and began refurbishing what they could while ridding their homes of ruined relics, soaked sheetrock, and mildewed furniture. “Football stadiums” of debris were piled in parking lots by the beach.
It wasn’t until months later that residents were told about an opportunity for a voluntary government buyout of their homes, as part of the New York State pilot buyout program. New York even provided additional funding to incentivize people to participate and relocate in Staten Island or one of the five New York City boroughs.
When FEMA or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provide funding for buyouts, it’s not unusual for homeowners to be left waiting for years before they know whether they’ll be able to move. The buyout process on Staten Island ranged from one to two years, a more expedited timeframe than what is typical. But it was not without its challenges.
Speaking with buyout participants, clear patterns emerged from their stories—including shortcomings that should be addressed in the future.
“It was kind of like a flashback to Sandy—like the first couple of weeks, we knew nothing.”
The biggest challenge, a few participants mentioned, was an absence of clear communication about how to navigate the buyout process. One participant likened the first couple of weeks following the buyout announcement to the weeks following Hurricane Sandy—a period of “information hunger” during which communication lines were severed, causing confusion for survivors about who to contact for help. The bureaucracy of the buyout program came with its own weak communication lines. Local officials and planning agencies could have done more to educate buyout participants about the process, a common complaint associated with efforts to purchase homes and help homeowners move out of harm’s way.
“Not everybody is used to reading legal documents, understanding responsibilities, or obligations,” one buyout participant said. “The information was available, but you needed to know where to look. There were a lot of resources online that were communicated, but not directly to us.”
This hunger for information also fluctuated depending on case manager assignments. “We’d ask the same exact questions and get different responses from different case managers,” one buyout participant said. “The appraisal process just wasn’t the best or most accurate.”
“My issue was that there was no uniformity,” Loshinsky said of the appraisal process. “You just had to hope you got someone who knew what they were doing. It was like not knowing if your doctor was a C student or an A student.”
This period was especially difficult for residents who were initially left on the outskirts of the designated buyout parcel, which led to tensions between neighbors on either side of the drawn line—another fraught issue of buyout programs. This led buyout participants like Mancuso and her neighbor to take up the task of reaching out to 24 neighbors in Oakwood Beach to secure a buyout for their neighborhood.
Mancuso said there were many immigrants on her block, and overcoming the language barrier was difficult, especially when compounded with residents’ fear of signing government documents. To help with this, they held information sessions, posted flyers, and went door-to-door answering their neighbors’ questions. They also stepped in to translate for Eastern European immigrants living nearby who didn’t have the requisite English-language skills.
“I think that the sense of community is really what propels us," Mancuso said about the outreach efforts. "It pushes us forward, it makes it a lot more digestible for all of us."
By the time the buyout opportunity was announced, some homeowners had already begun to repair their homes. One couple sank more than $35,000 into repairs. “We’re still paying for the damned kitchen after Sandy,” they said. Other homeowners also noted that they had already started, or even finished, repairs to their flood-damaged home before they were eligible for a buyout.
Some homeowners found that even the additional incentives to participate in the buyout program weren’t enough to compete with real estate prices in New York post-Sandy. Some participants had difficulty finding a comparable home for a similar price—an all-too-common problem post-disaster with limited housing from storm damages. People also struggled to qualify for a new mortgage because of poor credit and having been already overextended by the cost of repairs from previous floods.
After all adjustments, nearly 70 percent of buyout participants reported the amount of money as being adequate or more than adequate to buy a comparable home in a similar community. Of the respondents, 8.5 percent transitioned from homeownership to renting after the buyout, and 24 percent transitioned from a single-family home to a different type of home, such as a multi-family home, condo, or townhouse.
Some moved far, far away from the water. “We went as far away from the water as we possibly could,” Mancuso said.
“This doesn’t belong to us. We’re borrowing these wetlands.”
A number of buyout participants expressed feeling solace that the land that once held their repeatedly flooded home had been returned to nature. “I felt good that no one else is going to be in my spot five years later,” one participant said. “Nobody else is going to suffer through the whole thing. Nobody else is going to wake up in the middle of the night.”
Some go back to see the place they used to live from time to time, and some refrain from visiting. The memories of Hurricane Sandy are still too painful.
“The buyout was good for me and my family,” Carl Merkin, a Graham Beach resident who moved away from the coast, said. “We’re borrowing these wetlands, and it’s the wrong use for them. ‘Floodplains’—why do they call it a ‘floodplain’? Because it floods! We shouldn’t be building there!”
“It’s nice to stick your toes in the water, but you can’t stick your house on the beach. Nature gets the last word.”
Related Blog Posts
Under FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), some of the most flood-prone properties in the country have been repeatedly rebuilt even when it would be less expensive to help homeowners move to higher ground.
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) covers about 5.1 million properties worth more than $1.25 trillion collectively. But the program does more than provide insurance coverage. And it has its share of troubles that NRDC is working to fix.
FEMA has proposed allowing owners of homes that have been repeatedly damaged by coastal storms and floods, and that were bought out by taxpayers, to rebuild on the same highly flood-prone land.