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Two Years On, Coney Island Enclave Still Awaits Recovery

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Sea Gate, a private community in Coney Island, has not recovered from Hurricane Sandy. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week marks the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, and Kensinger will return to three neighborhoods he has been visiting since the storm. Up today is Sea Gate, a private community in Coney Island.

As New York City has struggled to recover in the two years since Hurricane Sandy, some neighborhoods have fared worse than others. The best example of a community rising from the ashes is Breezy Point, but its Coney Island counterpart, Sea Gate, illustrates the frustrations and inertia that have turned the rebuilding process into "a nightmare." Very little has changed here in the past two years, and the landscape is littered with boarded up homes, empty lots and abandoned construction projects. "It feels like a lot of buildings came down, and the land is for sale, but nothing is happening. A lot of the beautiful homes are still really damaged," said Hawley Hussey, who has lived in Sea Gate since 2003. "Stuff is just sitting there in total stasis."

Unlike the Rockaways and Staten Island, where a comprehensive new system of dunes and walls has been built along the shoreline, Coney Island remains exposed to the ocean on many fronts. Inside Sea Gate, "the bulkhead that previously safeguarded the community has been completely destroyed," according to the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery, and each waterfront home here must provide its own protection, with individual sea walls built by owners. Some are sturdy, but many are made of cinderblocks, rotting wood, crumbling concrete, or flimsy picket fences. At several houses, the wall has gone missing entirely since the storm. If Hurricane Sandy returned today, this neighborhood and the rest of Coney Island would be destroyed by the sea. "The walls are nothing, really," said Hussey, who has seen several of her neighbors move away. "I think there was a split between Sea Gate and the rest of everything, because it's a private community."

Despite the lack of significant rebuilding progress in Sea Gate, the governor recently announced some good news in the form of a $2.8 million grant for a new sea wall system. "Even a private community needs to have protection," said Barbara Brancaccio, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery. "You can't leave just one community open while the rest of the shoreline has got all these protections, because that makes everybody else outside of that private community equally vulnerable." The new Navy Wall System will be engineered from 15 foot pilings and vinyl sheeting, designed to protect the western tip of Coney Island from 120 mph winds and storm surges for the next 50 years.

However, the threat of rising sea levels may endanger this community long before another superstorm arrives. "Sea levels along the East Coast will rise three to four times faster than the global average over the next century," reports the Times. "While levels worldwide are expected to rise an average of two to three feet by 2100, they could surge more than six feet along the Atlantic seaboard." In Sea Gate, where many homes are separated from the ocean by a short stretch of sand, the risks of returning to the waterfront are clear. "It's really complicated if you are on the shoreline, whether to stay or whether to go, whether to build or whether to sell, " said Hawley Hussey. "That's a big decision."

November 2012: Along the shorefront of Sea Gate, many houses were gutted by Hurricane Sandy, which damaged nearly 750 homes in the neighborhood.

October 2014: Some homes have been torn down, others restored, but the sea walls have not been repaired, leaving the entire neighborhood vulnerable to flooding.

November 2012: This mansion on Beach 42nd street suffered serious damage from Hurricane Sandy, which cost Sea Gate residents $45 million.

October 2014: The home's windows remain boarded up, and its diminutive sea wall has been replaced by a picket fence. "A lot of people are living in their second floors, while their first floors are still boarded up," said Hawley Hussey.

November 2012: This home was one of seven demolished after Hurricane Sandy. Debris from collapsed homes sat in empty lots for over 6 months. 

October 2014: A new foundation has been laid on this beachfront lot, but no protection has been built to keep the ocean from flooding through and into the neighborhood.

October 2014: Even with a new sea wall system, it is unclear how much time Sea Gate has before it is submerged. Sea levels could rise by 30 inches in the next 40 years, according to the Times, and "about 800,000 city residents could find themselves living with the threat of being swamped."



October 2014: The Army Corp of Engineers is reportedly planning to invest $30 million to create rock jetties on the peninsula that will "capture sand in the sea currents and add acres to the receding Sea Gate coast."

October 2014: The Coney Island Lighthouse is still surrounded by rubble from the storm, pushed ashore by the sea. The city's resiliency ideas for protecting Coney Island include creating a wetlands and tidal barrier on Coney Island Creek, on the north side of Sea Gate.

October 2014: For now, empty lots and for sale signs dot Sea Gate's waterfront, as many residents retreat from the water. Only a handful of new houses have been built here since Sandy.

October 2014: With all streets leading to the water, the ocean is a part of residents' daily lives. "I just can't imagine not waking up to the sound of the sea," said Hawley Hussey. "It's the only way I can live in New York City, and a lot of people are like that."

October 2014: "Environmentally speaking, the water has been much cleaner," said Hussey, who swims in the ocean every day, year round. "We were noticing this year that the monarch butterflies are back for the first time since the hurricane."

October 2014: As the ocean continues it endless quest to reclaim New York City's shoreline, the Coney Island peninsula will one day fully surrender to the water.

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Breezy Point Residents Choose to Remain and Rebuild [Curbed]
· Coney Island's Residents, Forgotten, Struggle to Recover [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]