NY - Flooded and forgotten: What life is like for the last residents of Oakwood Beach
What life is like for the last residents of Staten Island's Oakwood Beach.
This story is part of the Grist seriesFlood. Retreat. Repeat, an exploration of how communities are changing before, during, and after managed retreat.
Less than an hour’s drive from downtown Manhattan, on the eastern shore of Staten Island, lies the neighborhood of Oakwood Beach. A decade ago, it was a tight-knit working-class community of roughly 300 homes. Bungalows and beach houses lined its quiet streets, boasting ample backyards, easy water access, and a calmness rare in a city like New York. Today, the neighborhood is unrecognizable, a barren landscape of empty lots and flooded streets. Almost everyone has le
Less than an hour’s drive from downtown Manhattan, on the eastern shore of Staten Island, lies the neighborhood of Oakwood Beach. A decade ago, it was a tight-knit working-class community of roughly 300 homes. Bungalows and beach houses lined its quiet streets, boasting ample backyards, easy water access, and a calmness rare in a city like New York. Today, the neighborhood is unrecognizable, a barren landscape of empty lots and flooded streets. Almost everyone has left.
When Superstorm Sandy ravaged New York on October 29, 2012, Oakwood Beach was one of the hardest hit areas. A 14-foot storm surge, among the highest recorded in the city, swept across the neighborhood. Entire houses were lifted from their foundations and carried across the surrounding marsh. Three people died.
Low-lying and encircled by wetlands, Oakwood Beach had always been prone to flooding, but the devastation caused by Sandy was unprecedented. Rather than rebuilding and waiting for the next storm, residents decided they would be better off elsewhere.
In the months that followed, they successfully lobbied the government to buy out their homes. The state of New York, using federal grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, agreed to pay pre-storm prices for the destroyed properties, demolish them, and never redevelop the land. Residents would be out of harm’s way in the event of another disaster and armed with money to resettle elsewhere. In time, nature would retake the area, creating a natural barrier against future storms. The strategy, called managed retreat, is what some experts say is the only long-term solution for waterfront areas like Oakwood Beach in the face of extreme weather and sea-level rise.
Buyouts in the neighborhood started in 2013, the first in a series of post-Sandy retreat programs on the eastern shore of Staten Island. The vast majority of residents chose to participate, but a few did not. Some simply didn’t want to leave their longtime homes. Others felt they couldn’t afford to relocate in New York’s expensive housing market for what the state was offering.
Today, a decade after Sandy, these holdouts reside in a neighborhood that is by design becoming more wild. The state acquired 308 properties during the buyouts and almost all of them have been demolished. Tall stands of vegetation from the surrounding marshland encroach into empty lots. Foxes, opossums, and snapping turtles have moved in. Deer and geese now outnumber the residents. Just 18 active households remain in the buyout zone.
The holdouts say they have been forgotten by the city. Streets are poorly maintained and basic services like trash collection are unreliable. The area is a frequent dumping site for people in the surrounding neighborhoods; old furniture, vehicle parts, and trash are strewn across some of the empty lots where homes once stood. Flooding is now a constant problem. Calling 311, the city’s line for non-emergency grievances, is a way of life in Oakwood Beach, but it yields few results.
“I pay my taxes,” said Christopher Camuso, 51, a resident who contacts city agencies about road conditions and flooding on a regular basis. Like his neighbors, he never imagined Oakwood Beach would become so neglected when he decided not to move. Residents were never told during the buyout process that as the area became less densely populated, it would be deprioritized by the city’s basic service providers. (City officials and the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery contend they haven’t neglected the area.)