Two years after Superstorm Sandy struck the Northeast, hundreds of Staten Islanders are deciding whether to sell their shorefront homes to New York state, which wants to knock them down and let the empty land act as a buffer to the ocean.
Stephen Drimalas was one Staten Islander faced with this tough decision. He lived in a bungalow not far from the beach in the working-class neighborhood of Ocean Breeze. He barely escaped Sandy’s floodwaters with his life.
“I had to speed outta here,” Drimalas said. “Another minute or two and I wasn’t getting out. That’s how fast it came in.”
He was folding laundry before he fled. And when he came back the next day, the clothes were there on the top of his bed, but the bed was floating in water. He slept in his car on cold nights — before the FEMA check showed up — because he couldn’t afford a motel room.
He fought with his insurance company, and when that money finally came through, he rebuilt his severely damaged home. A year after Sandy, it sounded like he’d be staying.
“This was a freaky thing that happened,” he said. “It was a superstorm; it was a perfect storm. So I don’t think we’ll ever get another one again in my lifetime.”
But about a third of his neighbors never came back. And when the city tore down several condemned homes, his block started looking gap-toothed and forlorn.
He wondered, “What if I wanted to move? Who’d pay money for a house in a flood zone?”
And Drimalas was still spooked from the night the storm rushed in.
“You know what happened, a couple of weeks ago, we had bad weather, and you hear the wind howling and everything like that,” he said. “Then you start thinking, ‘Uh oh, is the water coming again?’ You know? It goes through your mind now ’cause, you know, it’s in your head.”
Then New York state offered to buy his home as part of program to get people out of dangerous areas likely to flood again. And after thinking it over, Drimalas took the deal. In the past two years, he’s cycled through all the emotions of the victim of disaster: grief, fear, anger, defiance. But now there’s a new one: contentment.
“Everything’s working out well,” Drimalas said. “The state’s giving me a nice price. I’m happy with it.”
He wouldn’t say exactly how much he’s been offered, but it’s enough to cover the mortgage on this 900-square-foot home and the mortgage on a condo he owns in Florida. About 500 of his Staten Island neighbors have joined Drimalas in the buyout pipeline.
“And little by little, they’re moving out,” Drimalas said. “You’ll start seeing more and more U-Haul trucks here. People just want to go.”
The state will spend about $200 million to purchase land in Ocean Breeze and two other Staten Island neighborhoods. That’s about 550 acres of waterfront property in New York City that now faces an extremely unusual fate: permanent abandonment.
“We are going to demolish the homes,” said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office of Storm Recovery.
“Essentially, they go back to nature,” she said. “We didn’t bring this possibility to the community. The community came to us and said, ‘We want to go.’ ”
But a handful of people are planning to stay. Brancaccio says that a year from now, those holdouts can expect their neighbors to be rabbits, raccoons and wild turkeys. Drimalas says it’s happening already.
“You know what [I saw] in my yard the other day? A muskrat,” he said.
Drimalas is preparing to relocate to his Florida condo. It’s 2 miles inland and 30 feet above sea level. Right now he’s selling or giving away his stuff, including a really big barbecue grill.
“My family’s going to come take whatever they want first, whatever they need, and then I’ll just sell the rest,” he said.
For all he’s been through, Drimalas is one of the lucky ones. Two of his neighbors, both in their 80s, drowned in Sandy’s floodwaters. Drimalas may be saying goodbye to his home, but he gets to start again.