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Tracing The Scars of Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger visits Staten Island to check on post-storm cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

[In Staten Island, many residents are still struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

Springtime has come to Staten Island, but it has not erased the scars left by Hurricane Sandy.  "Six months later, it's still in shambles," said Frank Gonzalez, whose home in Midland Beach was flooded by the Atlantic Ocean. Like many residents of Staten Island's coast, Gonzalez is in the process of gutting his house, but just next door, a painful reminder of the storm remains.  A pair of burned down buildings, abandoned by their owner, are slowly rotting in the spring rains. "It's still pretty bad out here," said Gonzalez. "I hope it doesn't happen again."

In neighborhoods all along the eastern shore of Staten Island, the city has already torn down the worst of the storm damaged homes, leaving behind numerous empty lots. The damaged homes that remain are either being gutted or razed by homeowners, or have been abandoned. Ruined buildings and piles of rubble still dot the landscape, while squatters have taken over some empty homes, according to neighborhood residents. Looting is still a problem.  "You try to make the best of a bad situation," said Jean Laurie, watching as a demolition crew tore down her house in Ocean Breeze. "Every day is a different issue."

An empty home sits next to a newly created field in Ocean Breeze, a Staten Island neighborhood where the city has torn down many storm damaged buildings.  

The home that stood in this lot was demolished after being flooded by Sandy. This oceanfront neighborhood is located "in the zone of the wetlands," according to Jean Laurie, president of the Ocean Breeze Civic Association. But despite that, "we have a lot of homes that are coming up."

Jean Laurie's home was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, and is now being destroyed by a hired work crew. The demolition was "out of our own pocket," said Laurie, because "there wasn't enough damage" for the city to tear down her home.

Her new home will be the first house rebuilt on the block, and will be raised 13 feet on pilings, 18 steps up, with breakaway panels in the basement. "We want to revitalize the area. We don't want to leave it in shambles," said Laurie.

Despite the widespread damage caused by Sandy, one developer "plans to build 20 new semi-attached houses in Ocean Breeze, smack in the middle of places that were under deepest water in the storm surge," according to the Staten Island Advance

Some parts of the area remain in disarray. Several storm damaged homes are located on nearby Father Capodanno Boulevard. This home had broken windows, downed fences, and a wide open front door. 

A large heap of belongings were piled up in a driveway next to the home. According to residents living in the area, illegal dumping is just one of the neighborhood's problems. "We're trying to keep everything clean," said Laurie, but "we've got some looting still."

In Midland Beach, many homes have not yet been repaired. These two buildings on Midland Avenue burned down during the hurricane, and have not been touched for six months. "I don't know who the owners are," said Frank Gonzalez, who owns the house next door. "I guess they took off. I hope the city comes in and cleans it up and hauls it away."

Edith Gonzalez lived in this house, next door to the burnt out buildings, until it was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. Her son was rescued from the roof by a Coast Guard helicopter. After the storm, she suffered a heart attack. "Everything that happened here, you keep inside," Edith said. She has been living in a hotel nearby while her home is slowly renovated. 

The renovation was delayed during winter when the pipes froze, destroying a new boiler provided by the city. "Hopefully we'll have it ready by the end of June, or at least enough to move in," said Frank Gonzalez. 

"It's costing me so much money," said Gonzalez, a retiree. He also fears that the ruined buildings next door might catch fire again. "The one next to me burned, the one behind me burned. We were surrounded by fire."

In New Dorp Beach, an installation titled "Waiting" by artist Scott LoBaido summarizes the feelings of many Staten Island residents. Created in a lot where a home once stood, the piece "symbolizes the frustrating world of Island survivors of the storm," according to the Staten Island Advance, who "find themselves in a bureaucratic limbo, waiting for help that never seems to arrive."

Along with tearing down houses, the city has also been hard at work fixing up the beaches and parks on Staten Island's coast.  In Cedar Grove Beach, trucks cleared debris near the remains of two century-old bungalows. Most beaches and coastal parks have been closed since the storm. 

In Oakwood Beach, St. John's Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church was knocked off its foundation by Hurricane Sandy. "The surge caused flooding of about 10 feet high inside the church," according to the church website. "Along with others in the neighborhood, we have lost everything."

The church has been left open to the elements, with windows and doors missing. Inside, pews are upended and the altar stripped bare.  Services have been relocated to a nearby location. 

On Kissam Avenue in Oakwood Beach, 13 homes were swept away by Hurricane Sandy into the surrounding marshland. Almost half of the homes on the street were destroyed. 

Few reminders of the missing homes remain, beyond their foundations. For the residents who have returned to the area after the storm, "the solitude... turned to loneliness, the isolation to vulnerability," according to the Times, and several burglaries occurred.

Many residents are now waiting for a plan from the state government to buy their property and return the area to nature. In the meantime, the nearby wetlands are alive with rare birds, sprouting plants, and other signs of spring. 
?Nathan Kensinger
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