NEW YORK – State officials have offered to buy all 129 homes in a flood-prone neighborhood devastated by Superstorm Sandy.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday the state was extending its Sandy buyout program to homeowners in Staten Island's Ocean Breeze section, a former beach colony surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a tidal marsh on three others.
The community, like others on Staten Island's southeast coast, has flooded repeatedly since people started building small bungalows there in the early days of the automobile age, and the superstorm, spawned when Hurricane Sandy merged with two other weather systems, appears to have finally persuaded them to give the land back to the ocean.
Two elderly residents drowned when the storm struck in October 2012. Rushing floodwaters knocked down 20 houses. Most of the other houses were badly damaged. Some residents have made repairs, but many houses remain boarded up.
Under a program already at work in a neighboring area, Oak Beach, residents will be offered a little above the pre-storm value of their homes to give them to the state. Participation is voluntary, but Frank Moszczynski, an Ocean Breeze resident for 43 years and president of the local civic association, said 117 people have indicated they intend to say yes to the state's offer.
"It's not nice to see your neighborhood go like that," he said, adding that few people were interested in staying to rebuild. "We never want to have to do a memorial to any of our neighbors ever again."
Cuomo said the storm showed the neighborhood should be returned to nature.
"If a community decides enough is enough, and they want to move, we want to help," he said.
A case can be made that people never should've been allowed to build homes in the area. Storms have repeatedly destroyed homes there. A New York Times article from 1918 described 100 small bungalows being washed away during a storm. There was more flooding and destruction in 1920 and 1922. A 1927 storm brought floodwaters nearly a mile inland.
"Hundreds marooned in Staten Island homes," read a Times headline after a catastrophic 1932 flood.
Hundreds of people left the area when wind blew down cottages and waves took others in 1953.
The city's master planner Robert Moses tried to do something about the flooding in 1955 by building up Staten Island's South Beach with 2 million cubic yards of fill. But by 1977, residents were again suffering after days of heavy rain left waist-deep water in their living rooms.
The state launched its home buyout program in a handful of flood-prone areas in April. It has extended offers to 613 homeowners in Suffolk County, on Long Island, and 312 homeowners in Staten Island's Oakwood Beach neighborhood.
Joe Herrnking, a 15-year resident of Ocean Breeze who lived in his car for three months after Sandy destroyed his house, called the buyout announcement a "step toward closure."
"It was time," he said, "for the neighborhood to go back to nature."