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Residents Retreat From Staten Island's Hard-Hit Waterfront

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Residents of Oakwood Beach, Ocean Breeze, and Graham Beach in Staten Island have decided to move away from the water as a result of 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. Today, after visiting Breezy Point and Sea Gate, he looks at some of the most damaged areas of Staten Island.

In the two years since Hurricane Sandy flooded the East Coast, New York City has navigated a difficult recovery process. Communities devastated by the storm, including Breezy Point and Sea Gate, have struggled to rebuild, while in Staten Island, residents of some of the most damaged areas have decided to sell their homes to the government and never return. In Ocean Breeze, Oakwood Beach, and Graham Beach, the Governor's Office For Storm Recovery is now purchasing houses, tearing them down, and returning the land to nature. Choosing a "managed retreat" from the water has actually provided some relief for residents. "It's a bittersweet feeling, but I know that no one else will have to go through this kind of storm," said Joe Herrnkind, who lived in Ocean Breeze for 16 years. "The house wasn't a home anymore, it was a prison."

Joe Herrnkind's home was "The Little House In The Gully," a humble two-story structure with its name chiseled into the concrete sidewalk out front. Built in the 1800s, it sat in a marshy hollow just across the road from the Atlantic Ocean, and during Sandy it was filled with sea water, like the rest of Ocean Breeze. "It's a shell of what it originally looked like," said Herrnkind, while moving his final belongings out. Curtains, weather vanes, house numbers—everything was being removed in preparation for the handover to the state. "Last year, I would have missed it. But now I'm just ready to leave," said Herrnkind, who is relocating to a hillside neighborhood in Staten Island. "All my neighbors are stopping by, because a lot of them are moving today."

In Oakwood Beach, the buyout process has advanced even further. Almost every home here is empty, and 50 have already been demolished. The quiet streets are patrolled by a solitary security guard, who has watched hawks, raccoons, and phragmites recolonize the neighborhood. Oakwood Beach was the first community to approach the governor with the idea of a buyout. "Over many decades, they had all of these floods and storms. By the time Sandy hit, this place had been inundated so many times," said Barbara Brancaccio, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery. "Basically every time it rains, this place essentially goes deeper and deeper into the bay. And it's unlivable."

The state government expects to pay about $200 million for these neighborhoods. As of today, 326 Oakwood Beach residents have filed an application to sell their homes, alongside another 107 in Ocean Breeze. Everyone who applies will get an offer from the state. "It's really a resiliency program," said Brancaccio. "We are going to get you out of here, because its dangerous, and we're also going to make it safer for everybody else through this natural buffer." Once the state finishes the demolitions, these communities will be permanently returned to nature or used as parkland, to absorb future storm surges.

The future of New York's waterfront may increasingly involve sacrifices like these, and in neighborhoods that have decided not to relocate after Sandy, the danger from rising sea levels and worsening storms will only increase. "If you stay here and this happens again, at some point you may have to leave anyway," said Brancaccio. The city has now joined the ranks of places like Fiji, Panama, and Bangladesh, where more and more communities are being forced to relocate because of climate change. Like Miami and New Orleans, the city is faced with the enormous challenge of placating the inexorably rising ocean. "The notion that someday nature could swallow whole something so colossal and concrete as a modern city doesn't slide easily into our imaginations. The sheer titanic presence of a New York City resists efforts to picture it wasting away," wrote Alan Weisman in his 2007 book The World Without Us. "Nevertheless, the time it would take nature to rid itself of what urbanity wrought may be less than we might suspect."

November 2012: Along Quincy Avenue in Ocean Breeze, numerous homes were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Several residents lost their lives when the ocean flooded into the surrounding marshland.

April 2013: Six months later, these ruined homes had been demolished, but residents still hoped to return to the neighborhood. "This was a severe traumatic unexpected life thing we were going through, and no one gave a shit about us," said Joe Herrnkind. "That's putting it blunt."

October 2014: Two years after Sandy, these lots remain empty, and the community has collectively decided to accept a buyout from the government.  "I didn't feel safe selling it to anyone but the governor, because he was going to return it to nature," said Herrnkind.

November 2012: In the days and months after Hurricane Sandy, no one was more optimistic about Ocean Breeze's future than Jean Laurie, the president of the Ocean Breeze Civic Association, whose home was badly damaged by the storm.

October 2014:  After struggling through a year of red tape, Laurie accepted the state's buyout and left behind the empty lot where her home once stood. "She went from staying and building higher to moving to Florida," said her neighbor, Joe Herrnkind. "More power to her. They did the best thing they thought was good for them."

April 2013: Homes all along Father Capodanno Boulevard were flooded by Hurricane Sandy's surge. No dune or barrier had been built to stop the sea.

October 2014: This home has sat in limbo for two years, as nature has reclaimed the property. "I plan to rebuild and elevate it," said the empty building's owner. "I don't plan to sell to the state, even though that was an option."

October 2014: "Ocean Breeze has the bay in front of it and the creek behind it, and literally when you walk into the community you start to sink down. So they call it the bowl," said Barbara Brancaccio. The creek is now thriving, and wild turkeys have taken over the streets.

October 2014: A new berm has been created along the Staten Island shoreline since Hurricane Sandy, with sandbags stretching for several miles, often through uninhabited areas.

October 2014: From atop the berm, the empty expanse of Kissam Avenue is visible. Hawks and reeds have already moved in to this residential street in Oakwood Beach.

October 2014: Sandy destroyed 13 homes on Kissam Avenue. The state has planned to demolish the rest. This marshland was one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the storm.

October 2014: The Oakwood Beach buyout area includes entire blocks of boarded up row houses, some constructed relatively recently.

October 2014: Demolished homes along Fox Beach Avenue have been marked off by the city, while other empty houses wait for the wrecking crews. A year ago, this was a busy street, but it is now eerily quiet.

October 2014: New and old, all of the homes in the buyout areas will be sacrificed for the good of the surrounding communities. "Mostly people are ecstatic about the outcome," said Brancaccio. "It's really a very generous offer."

October 2014: In the decades to come, this area will be radically transformed, along with the entire coast of New York City, as billions of dollars are invested in creating a more resilient waterfront, and the scars of Hurricane Sandy are, eventually, erased.
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Breezy Point Residents Choose to Remain and Rebuild [Curbed]
· Two Years On, Coney Island Enclave Still Awaits Recovery [Curbed]
· Abandoned Buildings, Red Tape Mark a Year on Staten Island [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]