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People who have shorefront homes on Staten Island face a tough choice - whether to sell their properties to the state of New York. The state wants to knock the houses down. The empty land would act as a buffer to the ocean. Two years after Superstorm Sandy, Jim O'Grady, of member station WNYC, revisits a homeowner who already made his decision.
O'GRADY: I first met Drimalas outside his house in the working-class neighborhood of Ocean Breeze, where he was talking to good Samaritans who'd shown up with a station wagon full of supplies.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Blanket - you need another blanket?
STEPHEN DRIMALAS: No, I'm fine.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You, sure?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Toothbrush - anything like that?
DRIMALAS: A brush I can use.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, all right.
O'GRADY: He lived in a bungalow not far from the beach and he barely escaped Sandy's floodwaters with his life.
DRIMALAS: I had to speed out of here. Another minute or two and I wasn't getting out.
DRIMALAS: Yeah, that's how fast it came in.
O'GRADY: He'd been folding laundry before he fled. And when he came back the next day, there were the clothes on top of his bed, but his 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.
DRIMALAS: This was a freaky thing that happened. It was a super storm. It was a perfect storm. So I don't think we'll ever get another one again in my lifetime.
O'GRADY: But a third of his neighbors never came back and when the city condemned and tore down several homes, his block started looking gap-toothed and forlorn, and he wondered what if I want to move? Who'd pay money for a house in a flood zone? And Drimalas was still spooked about the night the storm rushed in.
DRIMALAS: You know what happened, a couple weeks ago, we had bad weather. And you hear the wind howling and everything like that. 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.
O'GRADY: Then New York State offered to buy his home as part of a program to get people out of dangerous areas that are likely to flood again. Drimalas thought it over and then took the deal. In the past two years, he cycled through all the emotions of the victim of disaster - grief, fear, anger, defiance - but now there's a new one - contentment.
DRIMALAS: Everything's working out well. The state's giving me a nice price. I'm happy with it.
O'GRADY: He won't say on tape how much he's been offered but it's enough to cover the mortgage on his 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.
DRIMALAS: And little by little, they're moving out. You'll start seeing more and more U-Haul trucks here. People just want to go.
O'GRADY: New York State will spend about $200 million to purchase land Ocean Breeze and two other Staten Island neighborhoods. That's about 550 acres of waterfront property in New York City that now face an extremely unusual fate - permanent abandonment.
BARBARA BRANCACCIO: We are going to demolish the homes. Essentially, they go back to nature.
O'GRADY: That's Barbara Brancaccio, the spokeswoman for Governor Andrew Cuomo's Office of Storm Recovery.
BRANCACCIO: We didn't bring this possibility to the community. The community came to us and said we want to go.
O'GRADY: A handful of people are planning to stay. But Brancaccio says a year from now, those holdouts can expect their neighbors to be rabbits, raccoons and wild turkeys. Drimalas says it's happening already.
DRIMALAS: You know what I seen in my yard the other day?
DRIMALAS: A muskrat.
O'GRADY: Drimalas is preparing to relocate to his Florida condo. It's two miles inland and 30 feet above sea level. So right now he's selling or giving away his stuff, including a really big barbecue grill.
DRIMALAS: My family's going to come take whatever they want first, whatever they need. And then I'll just sell the rest. You interested in anything?
O'GRADY: 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. For NPR News, I'm Jim O'Grady.
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