White flag over Fox Beach: A coastal community considers a permanent retreat from the water

Fox Beach after a recent storm. (Joseph Tirone)
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“People should not be living here,” said Joseph Monte.

He was standing on the little piece of Staten Island he’s called home for 22 years, and arguing that it would be better if no one lived there at all.

“Turn this into what it should have been and what it was a 100 years ago, a natural area for the grounds to take the water,” he said. 

Until Hurricane Sandy rendered it uninhabitable, Monte, who owned his own construction company for two decades, lived in a grey clapboard house in Fox Beach, a subsection of Oakwood Beach on Staten Island’s southeastern flank. In good times, it was a nice place to live, and some families lived there for generations, in low-slung bungalows with American flags, just a couple of blocks from the sea.

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But the neighborhood has had its downsides. Brush fires are a big issue, thanks to all the tall grass that turns to kindling in dry weather. So is flooding, a perennial, worsening problem that has proven resistant to small-bore fixes like berms and floodgates.

In the aftermath of the last big hurricane, whose surges swept more than 10 feet of water through the neighborhood and killed three residents, that problem has begun to appear insurmountable.

Today, residents are banding together in an effort to convince the government that their neighborhood should go away. The people of Fox Beach—more than 60 percent of them, according to one homeowner's count—want a buy-out.

"If they tell people, 'Listen, you’re on your own, we’re not helping you, we’re not buying you out,' you’re gonna see more deaths here,” said Neil Filipowicz, who, after the hurricane, found the bodies of his brother and nephew, embracing, in the basement of their Fox Beach home. "I guarantee it."

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG SEEMS TO THINK the idea of retreating from the waterfront in the face of rising sea levels is defeatist, or at least unrealistic.

Following a report that a dramatic rise in post-hurricane flood insurance rates might prompt an exodus from places like Coney Island and the Rockaways, the mayor said, "I do not agree with those people that say everybody's gonna move out of the low-lying areas of Staten Island, Coney Island, Breezy Point, the Rockaways. These places are still great places to live."

The following week, during what was billed as a major infrastructure speech, the mayor said the solution was not retreat, but rather the construction of flood-resistant buildings.

"We're not gonna leave the Rockaways or Coney Island or Staten Island's South Shore," he said. "But we can't just rebuild what was there and hope for the best. We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainably."

Shaun Donovan, the president's Hurricane Sandy point person, has a slightly different take on the matter.

"I've seen in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, communities where the local community made the decision not to rebuild, to do buyouts, to allow people to move," he told reporters in December. "Those are very, very hard decisions, but there are discussions going on right now in communities across the region about those."

THOSE DISCUSSONS ARE VERY MUCH UNDERWAY in Fox Beach, prompted by a local landlord named Joseph Tirone, owner of a one-bedroom, one-story bungalow there.

During the hurricane, stormwaters topped out at 10 feet outside his house, and six feet inside. His tenants lost all of their belongings, except for the ones they put on a mattress that floated to the ceiling. They have since moved to Arkansas, and Tirone has gutted his building to the studs. He is not planning to rebuild.

Instead, he, along with many of his neighbors, wants the federal government to buy them out, effectively erasing the neigbhorhood and returning it to nature. 

There's a federal program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that actually underwrites that sort of thing. It's called the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and according to the state Division of Homeland Security, it has been used successfully upstate to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, but never before in New York City.

“People are coming to us saying, 'Can we take advantage of this program?', and I think it’s our job to help them along in that process,” Councilman Vincent Ignizio told me.

But the process is by no means an easy one.

"Remember, there’s a lot to this that has to be understood," said Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro. "In life, it is worse to live in false hope than in no hope at all. So as a chief executive officer, I'm not going to give anybody false hopes."

In order for the Fox Beach residents to succeed, they, along with their elected officials, will have to convince the Bloomberg administration to petition the state for grant money.

The state, in turn, will have to petition FEMA. If FEMA obliges, its grants will cover only 75 percent of the acquisition costs, the rest theoretically covered by the city and state, if they go along with it. Which is a substantial "if," given that they'd essentially be paying for a reduction of their tax-paying base, and setting precedent to do so on a broader basis.

"Don’t look at getting anything from the city or the state," said Molinaro. "If it comes, then God bless you, but don’t look at that. Because you gotta realize, the city is already losing real estate tax, they’re not gonna add more money to that loss. That’s my opinion."

In a statement, Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said, “The Mayor is committed to working with each community on plans to help them recover and rebuild stronger and more resilient to future climate events. While it's too early to know if a buyout option makes sense in certain cases, we'll certainly consider it for those interested."

Even if the city does ultimately decide to play ball, Molinaro told me that for homes that were not completely destroyed, the process typically takes three to five years, which is a pretty long time to live in limbo.

A WEEK AFTER THE STORM, MONTE, THE OWNER of the grey clapboard house, returned home with a box of paper towels and four bottles of window cleaner.

"I stood in the middle of the house and I started getting upset and I called my wife and I said, ‘What am I doing here with paper towels and Fantastik?'” he told me. “We’re done, the house is done. Everything that we did here, that we built for our future, for our retirement, is done.”

Monte was standing outside his home during our interview, bundled against the cold in a puffy black vest. His front door was covered in plywood.

“They’re going around talking about people rebuilding, rebuilding ... How do you live in here?” he asked, with disbelief. 

There are about 165 homes in Foxbeach. At last count, 105 homeowners were interested in getting buy-outs and leaving.

Many of those homes border the Bluebelt, Staten Island's natural stormwater management system, which relies on infrastructure like streams and ponds and wetlands to channel and then filter water back into the ocean.

Tirone, Monte and their neighbors are hoping that the Bloomberg administration will see, in their buyout requests, a rare opportunity to achieve two goals at once: expanding the Bluebelt and mitigating against future disasters.

But of course City Hall has other things to consider.

"Is the administration fully on board with an acquisition process? That’s question number one," said Councilman James Oddo. "Two, if they are, how much money will we have, and will that be able to satisfy the interest?"