Hurricane Sandy hit Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, hard. With an elevation of a few feet above sea level, the area had been flooded by storms before. This time, three people died and the property damage inflicted by storm surge was extensive, wiping out entire houses on Kissam Avenue and severely damaging others. Considering the impact of sea level rise and the increasing likelihood of intense storms, New York State decided that retreat would be the best option for this neighborhood. It is in the process of buying back approximately 200 homes east of Mill Road at pre-Sandy prices in order to return the area to nature.
When I first went there in July 2013, the rubble left by Sandy had been cleared away. On Kissam Avenue, a number of the lots were just concrete slabs, already growing over. The mosquitoes were fierce. As I walked up and down Fox Lane, Fox Beach Avenue, and Tarlton Street, where most of the houses were still standing, while it still looked like the close-knit community it had been, it slowly became clear that at least half the homes were vacant. I have returned around twenty times over the course of two and a half years to chronicle the slow dismantling of this neighborhood. One by one, the houses have been sold to New York State and demolished. Now, in December 2015, about one quarter of the buildings are still standing and only a handful of the homes are occupied.
The Oakwood Beach buyout is entirely voluntary. Some residents decided to move immediately after the storm to get away from terrifying memories of the storm regardless of the buyout. Others made the decision to take advantage of the buyout to move from an area that was likely to be flooded again in their lifetime. A few decided that staying in their homes was the best option. To move would mean a drop in standard of living, an irreplaceable loss of family history. The city has promised to continue services. So in this neighborhood where more than half of the homes have been demolished, and most of the rest are boarded up, a few families continue to live, knowing they could lose everything with the next storm.
Resilience comes with a cost. Given limited resources, not every vulnerable area can be protected from sea level rise. To walk up and down the streets of this small neighborhood and watch its gradual disappearance is to see the reality of climate change and the hard choices that must be faced in coastal cities worldwide in the coming years.