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A home in Sea Gate, Brooklyn that was destroyed by Sandy, circa 2013.

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Hurricane Sandy five years later: Brooklyn’s Sea Gate is stuck in a middle ground

Recovery from Hurricane Sandy has been slow in the private Brooklyn community

This week, in looking at how communities affected by Hurricane Sandy have recovered in the past five years, we’ve seen one—Ocean Breeze, on Staten Island—that chose to pull back from the waterfront, and another—Breezy Point, on the Rockaway peninsula—that has rebuilt.

But in Sea Gate, a private community at the tip of the Coney Island peninsula, recovery has been slow going—even by post-Sandy standards. The neighborhood was inundated by water on all sides, with the Coney Island Creek and the ocean both surging through the streets during the storm. Many of its homes were torn apart, and the modest protections against the sea that were in place prior to Sandy were destroyed.

A stretch of the beach in Sea Gate in 2014.
The same stretch of beach in Sea Gate in 2017.

The federal government has addressed the latter problem, implementing a $28 million T-groin project through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that will, in theory, protect the neighborhood from future storms. (It also has public benefits, according to USACE; it will help prevent erosion on the Coney Island beach.)

But the process of rebuilding damaged homes has been more challenging, compounded by the fact that Sea Gate is a private, gated community—and thus, at a remove from many of the other areas affected by the storm. Five years after the storm, there are new homes throughout Sea Gate, but there are also empty lots, signaling that some homeowners simply gave up. (And considering that the enclave is at great risk of flooding—or worse—as climate change’s effects take hold in New York City, that may prove to be a wise decision.)

An empty lot where a house once stood in Sea Gate in 2017.

For our final look at Sandy-damaged neighborhoods five years after the storm, we once again turned to photographer and Camera Obscura columnist Nathan Kensinger to share his thoughts on half a decade of covering that area; he also shared photos, seen here, of the neighborhood immediately post-Sandy and what it looks like today.

Sea Gate is one of those hidden New York City communities that doesn’t get a lot of attention. That can be a boon to people seeking privacy, but can also be a challenge when you are trying to rebuild after a storm like Hurricane Sandy.

Sea Gate is basically surrounded by water on a peninsula in the ocean. And after Sandy, many of the houses here were completely decimated. Big coastal mansions with huge holes ripped out, just like the ones in Belle Harbor. And smaller historic houses totally flooded, like Breezy Point. The power of the storm surge left an intense footprint, and covered Coney Island with water.

Walking around after the storm, you could see how the ocean caused so much damage. The sea walls were old and crumbling, and the houses were basically built right out onto the beach. Even on a regular day, the waves here are alarmingly close to the streets.

In the years after Sandy, the recovery process in Sea Gate has been sporadic, at best. Some flooded homes sat boarded up for years, while others were torn down and rebuilt relatively quickly. But there never seemed to be a community consensus on how to rebuild, unlike Breezy Point and Belle Harbor, which have undergone a remarkable rebuilding process. It just seemed like everyone here was fending for themselves.

In that way, Sea Gate is like a lot of other neighborhoods around the city, where the rebuilding process has not gone smoothly. Recovering from something like Sandy is pretty daunting. Some places, like Ocean Breeze and Oakwood Beach, have decided it’s just not worth it when you are only going to be flooded again.

A row of houses along the beach in Sea Gate immediately after Hurricane Sandy.
The same row of houses, including a larger dwelling raised above the flood plain, in 2017.

Today, Sea Gate is still stuck in a middle ground—not quite rebuilt, not quite abandoned. There are empty lots all along its coast, or houses still vacant, and just next door, a brand new building. One house might have a nice sea wall, but if its neighbor only has a bunch of scrap wood, both places are going to flood together.

When another major storm comes, all of Sea Gate will be underwater again. There are some huge new T-groin barriers that have been built along the coast by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but they aren’t intended to hold back the ocean. You would need to build an enormous wall all around Coney Island to do that.

Many of the homes in Sea Gate have very little protection from the water.

Walking around Sea Gate today, you have to wonder what the future of neighborhoods like this are. Places like Broad Channel Island, Edgemere, and Red Hook, where the old buildings are built right at the edge of the water, or places like Long Island City, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg, where the new waterfront towers are being built in flood zones. How long can these communities hold on in their fight against the ocean? The water is already lapping at the front door, and sea levels are only getting higher.

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