The neighborhood of Oakwood Beach on Staten Island was forever changed on October 29, 2012, as Hurricane Sandy tore through the Eastern Seaboard. Residents of this small coastal community had to bear some of its worst consequences: flooded-out homes, houses swept from foundations, and, tragically, the loss of life. For many of the homeowners in this New York floodplain, the experience was by far the most severe encounter they’d ever had with the devastating power of Mother Nature. But it was certainly not the first. Oakwood Beach sits on a low-lying wetland, and Sandy was just the latest insult in a history of storm damage.
Joseph Tirone, Jr. was well aware of these troubles. A real estate agent on Staten Island who owned a bungalow in Oakwood Beach, he had seen his neighborhood experience repeated flooding that required costly and continual home repairs. But that fall, he began to ponder a new way out of the cycle of flood-rebuild-repeat they knew so well. Shortly after the hurricane, Tirone met a representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “I said to him, ‘Look, I don’t want to fix this house, because I don’t want to rent it out, because I don’t want to put another tenant in. My tenants . . . they were hysterical, crying. They lost everything they owned.’” The FEMA rep told him that there was an alternative to consider: a buyout.
Tirone, then 55, could not have imagined that four months after this conversation—following dozens of community meetings, thousands of emails, and the acquisition of a few new allies—the governor would announce an ambitious program to purchase properties at pre-storm values, return the flood-prone land back to nature, and free homeowners long trapped on vulnerable shorelines.
“There are some parcels that Mother Nature owns,” declared Governor Andrew Cuomo in his 2013 State of the State address. “We want to run a program that will provide the funds to buy out those homeowners who . . . want to move on to higher ground.” The Fox Beach section of Oakwood Beach would serve as the program’s pilot, and Tirone would be one of the key players in its success.
It was a winning arrangement, both for the residents of Fox Beach, where Tirone helped organize 185 neighbors behind a buyout application, and for the government and taxpayers. Properties that flood repeatedly make up just 2 percent of the 1.5 million U.S. properties with flood insurance—but account for 30 percent of all claims paid by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
Though Tirone’s story began after the storm, he wants it to be heard by coastal and riverside communities long before they find themselves in the same position. He spoke with NRDC and offered some of the key lessons from his neighborhood’s buyout experience.
1. Connect with your neighbors.
Before Sandy, Tirone wasn’t well acquainted with the people of Fox Beach. But in its aftermath, as he helped clean out his tenants’ storm-ravaged house, he began speaking with more of them and found they shared his frustration with the lack of response from the local government. “Officials would get meetings together in good faith but not have any answers,” Tirone says. “When I told the neighbors that I had found out about these buyouts, they were intrigued. They invited me to a meeting.”
When Tirone spoke at that first meeting, attended by 200 or so local residents, he started by assuring the crowd that he had no hidden agenda—that he was a victim just like them. Then he explained what he had learned from FEMA. “At the end, I asked who was interested in a buyout,” he remembers. “Everybody raised their hand. It was like, whoa. I did not expect that.”
2. Form a local committee.
To suggest evacuation is to trigger heartrending conversations, and Tirone believes that the community must facilitate them. During Sandy, he says, “we had three people die on Fox Beach Avenue. The community, despite the fact that they were so close knit, was ready to go.”
At that initial meeting, Tirone and seven of his neighbors formed a committee that would go on to meet every Thursday, to explore the idea of buyouts and build on previous efforts to collect local flood data. Once a month, the committee would host a community meeting to fill in interested residents on what they’d learned, update the list of participants, and help those residents with paperwork.
3. Investigate your neighborhood’s past to better guide decisions on its future.
Throughout his research, Tirone found abundant evidence that Oakwood Beach couldn’t safely sustain development. “When I bought the property on Fox Beach Avenue, I didn’t have a bank tell me I needed flood insurance,” he says. “I never looked at the history of the area to see all the times in the 1930s, the ’50s, or the big storm in ’92, a nor’easter that brought in a storm surge of five feet. I didn’t know—and I’m a real estate agent.”
4. Ensure gatherings are community-led.
To avoid distractions, especially at the outset of the project, Tirone suggests “zero press, zero elected officials.” That’s not to say input from outsiders isn’t important; Tirone reached out to people from across the country who had faced similar circumstances. In doing so, he learned that consensus was a key to success. Applications for larger, connected groups of parcels—requiring a high participation rate from homeowners—have the best chance of getting approved.
But it took some time for residents to unite behind the idea of selling. One of the biggest questions that the largely working- and middle-class Fox Beach community had concerned the fate of their homes after the government buyout. “They said, ‘They’re going to build a mansion on my house. I don’t want any part of it; I'll figure out how to survive. I'm not giving a rich person my property.’” With the state’s proposal to return the low-lying land to nature, he adds, “we were able to stop all these rumors.”
Residents learned that a well-organized buyout could not only get their families out of harm’s way but also protect the future of their cherished neighborhood, since returning the land to nature creates a vital buffer zone for storms. Once they reached a consensus, they were able to invite elected officials to help move their plan ahead.
5. Anticipate some bumps along the way—and help others learn from the experience.
Tirone acknowledges that had there been a better coastal development strategy and plans for mitigating emergencies, Fox Beach might have fared differently during the 2012 storm. Instead, the neighborhood found itself at the center of the state’s pilot buyout program. As national flood maps continue to be redrawn, Tirone hopes that his story serves as a lesson for others in extremely flood-prone communities like his. To them, he offers himself as a resource. He also emphasizes the role of real estate agents in addressing the factors that put homeowners in such dire straits, including the lack of flood zone disclosures in real estate transactions.
Today, more than five years after Sandy, former residents are rebuilding their lives elsewhere—in some cases just a few blocks away. Signs of their old homes are slowly fading or have disappeared altogether, while different types of residents, like deer, birds, and wildflowers, make their mark. Looking at the land where his former property sat, Tirone notes, “You would not believe that there was ever a house there. Never. You just won’t believe it because it’s the middle of a swamp. Welcome to Staten Island. That’s just how it works.”
NRDC’s Rachel Mickelson contributed reporting.
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