Many shorefront communities are determined to rebuild after superstorm Sandy. But residents of Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach want to pick up and leave instead.
Homeowners in a four-block portion there are pushing for a federal buyout of their homes. Out of 165 homes in the area, which dates to the 1920s, owners of 106 have signed a petition in favor of a buyout.
"Nobody wants to stay," said Carlos Villalobos, a 63-year-old mailman and Oakwood Beach resident of 15 years. Damage from the Oct. 29 storm remained visible Thursday, with debris still lining the streets and homes shifted off their foundations. "It’s going to happen again. The place is a ghost town."
The neighborhood’s initiative highlights a question that has lingered in the storm’s aftermath: whether coastal communities rocked by Sandy should rebuild at all. The idea of buyouts has recently gained support from state and federal officials. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his state of the state address this week, proposed a home-buyout program but didn’t specify how it would work.
"I’ve talked to homeowners who have dealt with serious floods three, four, five times over the past few years," the governor said. "Many of them are saying "I don’t want to have to do it again."
Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican from Staten Island, said various communities on the shore such as Midland Beach and Tottenville have expressed interest in getting buyouts. But Oakwood Beach is perhaps the best candidate because of its location. Under such programs, the land can’t be developed again.
"Literally, it is just surrounded by marshland," he said, referring to the Bluebelt, or Staten Island’s storm-water drainage system, which borders many Oakwood homes. "When you look on a map, you realize instantly this is not an area where people should have been living," he said.
Residents of the community are trying to gain support from local officials for a program paid for mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and run by the state. But state officials can’t act until municipalities make the request, a spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services said.
New York City has never participated in the program, but after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, about 80 other New York state communities requested that more than 950 properties be acquired, according to the state homeland security division. FEMA covers 75% of the buyouts while the state covers 25%.
The upstate town of Jay, located roughly half an hour from Lake Placid, expects to demolish 19 homes that suffered damage from Hurricane Irene under the program by spring.
"It’s a trying decision for the municipality," said Randy Douglas, town supervisor and chairman of the Essex County board of supervisors. "We’re losing tax base. You worry about losing identity." But he added, "We couldn’t continue to put people in harm’s way."
The program’s history shows that not everyone who signs up to get their home bought out finds it easy to follow through. After a devastating 2010 flood in Nashville, the city received interest from 244 homes deemed eligible for a FEMA buyout, which is voluntary
But 41 homes ended up withdrawing, said Sonia Harvat, spokeswoman for Metro Water Services, the city’s water utility. Some said they had anticipated receiving more money while others decided they had fixed up their homes to the point that they’d stay, she said.
The buyouts, she said, aren’t a cure-all. “We really stressed that these property acquisitions and buyout programs would not make them whole again,” she said. But “some of these property owners were elderly,” she added. “It’s very difficult after an event like the one we had to put your home on the market. This gives them the opportunity to not deal with that type of stress.”
In New York City, talks of buyouts are preliminary. At an Oakwood Beach community meeting Thursday, members of the committee in favor of buyouts cautioned the process could take longer than a year. They also expressed concern about getting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support.
"We know that he’s shown himself as being disconnected to the community," said Joe Tirone, a 55-year-old real-estate broker. He cited the mayor’s initial decision to press ahead with the New York City Marathon despite the devastation on Staten Island.
Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bloomberg, said in a statement, “The mayor is committed to working with each community on plans to help them recover and rebuild stronger and more resilient to future climate events.”
She added, “While it’s too early to know if a buyout option makes sense in certain cases, we’ll certainly consider it for those interested.”
Several residents said they were making basic repairs but holding off on major rebuilding in hopes of a buyout. The area remains largely desolate, with most residents living elsewhere. One house had a spray-painted message to deter looters: “House now booby trapped. Welcome.”
The decision to leave won’t be easy. Many homeowners have lived in Oakwood Beach for decades. The neighborhood was a summer retreat for residents until the 1950s, when people started to settle permanently, committee members said.
"I’m a displaced person," said Joseph Szczesny, whose family has owned a home on Fox Beach Avenue, one of the streets where buyouts are being proposed, since 1956. "My heart and my roots are here."
His house is littered with chunks of insulation, and Sandy buckled its floors. He said he rebuilt after a powerful storm in 1992. “I’ve been through it once,” he said. “This is my second time. I can’t do it again.”
A version of this article appeared January 12, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Sandy Spurs Call To Buy Up Homes.