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Three years later, buyouts help Sandy-battered residents retreat to new homes

This week marks three years since Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeastern U.S., causing $50 billion in property damage and more than 100 deaths. In Staten Island, New York, 24 people died from the storm, and more than 2,100 homes were destroyed. While many coastal residents rebuilt, many moved after the government paid them to leave. NewsHour's Stephen Fee reports.

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  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Tina and Randy Downer built their dream house and raised their two kids in the Oakwood beach section of Staten Island. Their house was just 300 feet from the Atlantic Ocean.

  • TINA DOWNER:

    It's beautiful. It's like we got to live in some kind of a nature sanctuary.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    The Downers knew the area was prone to flooding during storms, but the destruction of Superstorm Sandy took them by surprise.

  • TINA DOWNER:

    I could not believe what we were seeing.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Their house took on 13 feet of water. Just down the street, Joe Tirone owned a small bungalow that he rented out. After the damage from Sandy, he told a consultant for the Federal Emergency Management Agency – or FEMA – that he didn't want to rebuild.

  • JOE TIRONE:

    He said, 'Well if that's the case why don't you have the government buy out your home?' And I had no idea what he was talking about.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    For two decades, the federal government has financed the purchase of homes in severely flood prone areas all over the country, getting homeowners permanently out of harm's way. The buyouts are administered by the states and local municipalities. When Tirone learned about this program, he presented the idea to his fellow homeowners at a community meeting.

  • JOE TIRONE:

    I said, 'How many people here would be interested in a buyout?' Basically every single person raised their hand.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    In the three years since Sandy, nearly every one of the 180 homeowners here in Oakwood Beach has taken the voluntary buyout from the state. That included the Downers, who now feared living so close to the ocean. Three of their neighbors died during Sandy.

  • TINA DOWNER:

    People we know died here. That hit home with a lot of people.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo visited Oakwood Beach on the second anniversary of Sandy last year, he promised every house bought out would be demolished, and this vulnerable land would never be built on again.

  • ANDREW CUOMO:

    We're going to return this back to the natural pristine wetlands, so that God forbid there is another storm, this becomes an effective buffer for the rest of the communities.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Homeowners were offered the pre-Sandy market value of their homes — plus as much as 15 percent more. Overall, the state is planning to spend $200 million to buyout 500 homes mostly in three Staten Island neighborhoods.

    Lisa Bova-Hiatt oversees New York State's recovery program and says it was necessary for the state to pay above market value.

  • LISA BOVA-HIATT:

    If you are going to get people to buy into a 'managed retreat' scenario, you need to give them incentive to leave. It's not a windfall for them. Any additional money that they've received from insurance companies or from FEMA is deducted.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Bova-Hiatt says buying and demolishing homes in these areas saves taxpayer money in the long-run.

  • LISA BOVA-HIATT:

    We are making sure that we're not spending money on infrastructure in areas that will repetitively need to be fixed.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    But aren't there other parts of Staten Island that are just as prone to flooding where this program isn't being offered?

  • LISA BOVA-HIATT:

    Sure, but we have other programs. The reality is that there's no one way to take care of a neighborhood or a borough, or in our case — a state — after a storm.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Where the Downer's house stood is now an empty plot. They now own and live in a one-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a building elsewhere on the island. With the state buyout money, they also bought a second home out of state.

    What do you say to somebody who says 'sounds like a lot of money.' Was it a windfall for you?

  • TINA DOWNER:

    No, I think that it was very fair that the state used the proper valuations on the property. It still can't replace what we lost. The sense of community, where are roots are, our friends and neighbors. So it didn't even matter, we lost a lot.

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