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Three Years After Sandy, Returning Staten Island to Nature

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In Staten Island, New York's first managed retreat from the waterfront is now returning several neighborhoods to nature. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, revisiting some of the neighborhoods of Staten Island affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Underneath the yellow patio umbrella in Lois Kelly's backyard, a lawn chair sits on the manicured grass, a cool bottle of peach iced tea nearby, providing a comfortable front row seat to the struggle between human civilization and climate change. From this garden oasis, Kelly has seen 30 years of brushfires, storms, floods, and invasive species threaten her neighborhood's existence. The Nor'easter of '92 flooded the basement and engulfed her friends' homes. The Easter Sunday fire of 2009 burned the marsh across the street to the ground. But it was Hurricane Sandy that finally caused the residents of Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, to pack up and leave. "I had 16 and a half feet of water," said Kelly, looking out to the expansive wetlands ten feet from her driveway. "Sandy was just like the straw that broke the camel's back, forever."

It has been three years since Hurricane Sandy inundated New York's shoreline, forcing the city to reckon with the imminent threat of rising sea levels. Since the storm, several different recovery processes have unfolded in flood-prone neighborhoods, while the government contemplates its larger response, with plans to invest $20 billion into proposals including massive storm barrierslevees, and reefs to help keep the Atlantic Ocean away. Meanwhile, in Staten Island, the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery is slowly progressing with its systematic, managed retreat away from the waterfront, buying up and demolishing three small communities—Oakwood Beach, Ocean Breeze, and Graham Beach—and returning them to nature. Almost 400 homes have now been purchased, at a cost of $160 million, and 78 have been stripped, gutted, and knocked to the ground, replaced by scattered seeds from a 20-pound sack of Meadow Mix. Lois Kelly estimates that only 12 active households remain in the neighborhood, fellow holdouts who have decided not to accept a buyout from the State. "I'm hoping to maybe just stay another 10 years or so, if I can," said Kelly, who is in her sixties. "It's a lovely place. I would like to stay here forever… but you never know what life is going to bring."

Outside her fences, the neighborhood of Oakwood Beach is slowly unraveling, as empty buildings are destroyed and nature reclaims the landscape. Vines, shrubs, trees, and squash all grow unchecked in former backyards, as thistles and other wildflowers colonize driveways and sidewalks. Geese have taken over the empty streets, bathing in potholes, and deer are reappearing from nearby forests. "Mother Nature is really taking these places back," said Barbara Brancaccio, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery. "It was happening with or without us, but now that we are doing it, it's happening on its own… Between the turkeys and the cats and the rabbits and the raccoons and the phragmites, its becoming what it was always intended to be." While the official process of turning Oakwood Beach back into a natural wetlands buffer is nowhere near complete, it's clear that the wild plants and animals are now largely in control. "There's always been animals here, always," said Kelly, who feeds a wide variety of fauna living in the nearby marsh, including raccoons and possums. "Now we have deer. We never had that before... and I never had geese as much, but after the storm, they just started."

Purposefully returning a neighborhood to nature is a new experiment for New York, and it has not been without its challenges. Oakwood Beach has had several different demolition crews since Sandy, according to neighbors, with each team navigating complicated steps to remove their allotment of empty houses. "We need electric, gas, water, and sewer to be disconnected before we can start demolition," explained Joseph Giordano, the senior project engineer at NorthStar Demolition and Remediation, which is currently under contract to take down 193 houses for the state. Many homes in the buyout areas were left with belongings still inside—toilets, beds, televisions, books, and photos—so a cleanup team must clear each interior before a teardown. "They take out the universal household waste—thermometers, lightbulbs," said Giordano. "Whatever they can salvage, they can have—washing machines, cabinets." Once the final shutoff notices have been obtained, however, demolishing a house is a brutally straightforward process. "They come down quick, once they get going," said one worker. "We'll start at 8 in the morning. By 10, the house will be halfway down. By noon, it will be completely flattened. Once we start, we don't leave until it's finished."

On a recent morning, as the cold sun rose, a pair of excavators shuddered to life and ripped into a grand three story home at the edge of Oakwood Beach. Balconies and walls were torn away. Windows exploded and roofs snapped in half. Floors buckled and doorways were ripped asunder. Leftover belongings came spilling out, mattresses and tubs sliding down to the lawn. In just four hours, a structure containing lifetimes of memories was reduced to a pile of twisted scrap, with little else to mark its passing. Oakwood Beach will soon become the first community in New York City to be entirely displaced by global warming, but it definitely will not be the last.

In nearby Ocean Breeze and Graham Beach, the state buyout process is in the earlier phases, and the streets are still mostly lined with houses. Many are empty and boarded up, others still lived in by families or visitors. Flocks of turkeys roam the empty lots and side streets, strutting past abandoned cars stripped of their license plates. The state has received 560 buyout applications in total, and is also helping to manage the buyout of 49 other properties near the Staten Island Blue Belt with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, these numbers pale in comparison to the tens of thousands of housing units that the city is currently allowing to be constructed in flood zones across the city, "a Category 5 storm in terms of real-estate development," as New York Magazine described it, "precisely in the spots that Hurricane Sandy hit the hardest." In the decades to come, as sea levels continue to rise, these newly built neighborhoods may end up following the same path as the condemned communities of Staten Island.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Kissam Avenue in Oakwood Beach was left a barren, empty landscape largely devoid of plant life and homes, as seen here in April 2013.

Today, the street, surrounded by marshlands, has slowly been overtaken by nature. Phragmites and wildflowers fill the empty lots, as the remaining houses are slowly gutted and demolished.

In Graham Beach, homes surrounded by wetlands were flooded by Sandy's storm surge. This flooded-out house on Graham Avenue, seen here in November 2012, sat empty until it was demolished in 2013.

Today, the home's footprint is an overgrown mix of wildflowers, with invasive phragmites encroaching at the edges. Collapsed fences remain tangled in the bushes.

A badly damaged Ocean Breeze home being demolished in April 2013. Initially, many homeowners in this neighborhood were committed to rebuilding

Today, the empty lot houses an abandoned car, and it is visited daily by a flock of wild turkeys. The owners decided to relocate to Florida after being bought out by the state.

The return of nature is most obvious in Oakwood Beach, where many empty homes and abandoned gardens have become overgrown wildernesses. "I guess everything comes back," observed Lois Kelly. "I was reading that Chernobyl has a whole bunch of animals that have come back, and that was a nuclear disaster."

All of the remaining unoccupied houses in Oakwood Beach are sealed up and locked. "We board them up to keep them safe," said Hab Karam, the project manager for CB&I, which maintains the properties here and in Ocean Breeze. "Anything that's a hazard we get rid of, like a swimming pool in the back, we get rid of."

Leftovers from previous tenants are slowly rotting underwater in a pool on Kissam Avenue, covered by a layer of seeds from the nearby phragmites. "When you are walking down these streets, a lot of these properties, the phragmites are covering the street already," said Brancaccio. "When it rains, you can't even get your car down."

An empty Oakwood Beach home with an open garage. "Within the next couple of months it will change a lot, because a lot of these houses will come down," said Joseph Giordano. "Some of them are triplexes, some are little bungalows."

Many home interiors have already been gutted, in preparation for their destruction. "We make it ready for demolition. It's an interesting process," said one worker. "Once we get inside, it's already been pretty banged around."

Other homes, like this one in Ocean Breeze, have been left largely untouched since Sandy, with appliances and belongings inside and mud from the floodwaters still on the walls. Though the windows were boarded up, the front door of this home had been left open for several days.

An upstairs bedroom appeared to have been used by a visitor sometime in the last three years. A mattress and clothing were left behind, near several dead rats.

One of the larger homes in Oakwood Beach, with views of the nearby ocean, sat empty for the past year before being demolished last week. After Sandy, all of the homes around it were torn down, leaving it to stand alone in the encroaching marshland.

"That big blue house was a tiny little blue house a long, long time ago. And this guy came, and it wound up with three different decks and three different levels, and you can see the Verrazano Bridge six different ways," remembered Lois Kelly. "He was proud of it, it was beautiful."

Over the course of four hours, the home was reduced to a pile of debris. The site will soon be returned to nature, to protect nearby communities. "The buyout itself is a managed retreat—it's strategic retreat," said Brancaccio. "There are currently enough contiguous parcels for a substantial buffer."

After demolition, each site is filled in and leveled. "They backfill it, they topsoil it, and they seed it," said Joseph Giordano. "They call it a wetlands mix….It's a blend of seeds. Some won't come up until the spring, because they are dormant."

The seed blend is FACW Meadow Mix (ERNMX-122), and includes a variety of species, mainly Fox Sedge and Virginia Wildrye, with smaller quantities of Sunflowers, Monkeyflowers, Mud Plantain, Slender Mountainmint and Sensitive Fern. "It's native species," said Giordano. "Phragmites is something they don't want."

As the wetlands slowly take over, the last holdouts in Oakwood Beach are now mainly visited by geese and deer. "Some people come by….They will stop in their car and say 'I used to live here.' They still come around to see it, because they miss it," said Lois Kelly. "I think at a certain point the few people who do come back, they will stop… and some people never came back."

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]
· Hurricane Sandy coverage[Curbed]
· Residents Retreat From Staten Island's Hard-Hit Waterfront [Curbed]