MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We've been trying to stay on top of recovery efforts in the Southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean after this summer's devastating storms, which makes this next story even more meaningful. It's about a 6-mile stretch of shoreline in Staten Island, N.Y., which is still marked by devastation that rolled in with Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Reporter Jim O'Grady of member station WNYC returned to the neighborhood of Ocean Breeze, where the state has been buying out homeowners. His first stop was the once-bustling block of Buel.
JIM O'GRADY, BYLINE: I checked an online database of real estate transactions and knew that 19 of the 20 homeowners on Buel Avenue had taken buyouts from the state. So it shouldn't have surprised me to find their homes bulldozed and their lots returned to grass.
(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS VOCALIZING)
O'GRADY: As the people have moved away, a flock of turkeys that's been here for years has doubled in size. It strolled past the single boarded up home still standing on Buel Avenue. The closest human was a block over on Liberty Avenue.
CYNTHIA ANDERSON: I've been here 30 years (laughter). It's breaking my heart (laughter).
O'GRADY: Cynthia Anderson was packing boxes in the narrow bungalow where she raised five kids. After Sandy, she was sure she'd stay, even though New York Bay had poured down her street and crested a foot below her roof line.
ANDERSON: It was horrible. When you walked in, you didn't expect to see the mud. And, you know, you didn't realize your furniture floats to the ceiling, and then just drops where - you didn't expect to see what you saw.
O'GRADY: Anderson was determined to fortify her house against the next storm. But one by one, her neighbors did the opposite. They sold their homes to the state to be demolished.
ANDERSON: The biggest fear was what was going to become of this neighborhood. Should I stay or should I go? I really didn't know what to do. And one day, I just decided when I saw so many people leaving that I said, I better get out of here.
O'GRADY: In the end, she did what about 80 percent of eligible Staten Islanders did - sold her home to the government at a good price. She couldn't believe the state would not be developing all of this newly empty real estate right by the beach and in ways she didn't like.
ANDERSON: They're going to put low-income housing here, motels here.
O'GRADY: Others in Ocean Breeze worry high-rise condos could be arriving. But Lisa Bova-Hiatt of the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery says none of that will happen.
LISA BOVA-HIATT: Buyout properties must be kept as open space in perpetuity. There are areas that are wetlands, and they seem to be just a natural part of that wetland area.
O'GRADY: They'll stay that way to be a buffer against future storms. And then, there are the 20 percent of people who are staying, like Vincent Errichiello.
VINCENT ERRICHIELLO: I'm very happy with the location.
O'GRADY: His location is two blocks from Buel Avenue but at a higher elevation, lowering his risk. He skipped the buyout because his house has been in his family for generations and his mortgage was paid off.
ERRICHIELLO: Truthfully, I didn't need the $400,000 they offered.
O'GRADY: Instead, he took money from the city's Build It Back program to take down the house and rebuild bigger - this time, with footing sunk deep in the earth and a first floor that will be 14 feet above ground.
Does that make you feel safe?
ERRICHIELLO: Yes. I have no problem - when's the last time anything happened before that - 60, 70 years ago?
O'GRADY: You say that, but two of your neighbors died right around the corner.
ERRICHIELLO: Yes, they did. One was 90 years old. He didn't evacuate.
O'GRADY: That would be James Rossi. His name is carved into a memorial stone along with Ellen Norris, who died at age 89. The stone lies near a vinyl sign that residents hung from a fence soon after the storm. It reads - Ocean Breeze, stronger than Sandy. The sign is faded now. It'll be removed when the house behind it is torn down. For NPR News, I'm Jim O'Grady in Staten Island.
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