AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now the NPR Cities Project explores how communities are rethinking their proximity to water in light of rising seas.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have to make sure that our cities are safe.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How are we going to maintain the city?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Location, location, location.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If other cities can do it, we can do it.
CORNISH: When a hurricane causes severe damage to a city, it often raises the question of whether people should've be living in the worst affected areas in the first place, and should they then be allowed to return? For some in New York City, nearly two years after Hurricane Sandy, the answer to those questions is no. In Staten Island, the state is tearing hundreds of houses down. Here's Matthew Schuerman of member station WNYC.
MATTHEW SCHUERMAN, BYLINE: I'm here in the Fox Beach neighborhood, a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean - or rather, the former Fox Beach neighborhood. This used to be a working-class area, roughly 180 homes, mostly small bungalows, far away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. But for the past year, the state has been tearing down these homes. The latest to go, as you can hear behind me, is number 16 Kissam Avenue. Bill Bye used to live there.
BILL BYE: It's a strong roof - was a strong roof, I should say.
SCHUERMAN: After Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, Bye and other homeowners decided their neighborhood was dangerous and increasingly expensive.
BYE: The insurance would be too high, property tax, everything would be too high.
SCHUERMAN: The backhoe nibbles away at the house, bit by bit, using its shovel to first knock the roof boards loose, pluck away the gutter, nudge the brick chimney. Within an hour, the whole thing comes down. The woman, who lives next door, Franca Costa, is staying, at least for now.
FRANCA COSTA: I don't know if they're offering me enough money where I can buy something else for us. I mean, the guy down there moved into a studio. I don't want to do something like that once I've owned a house.
SCHUERMAN: Costa is one of only a few holdouts left. It's not just because of Sandy. This is wetlands. It floods in heavy rains and is barely above sea level. In hot weather, wildfires break out.
JOE TIRONE: If you look at what we're in the midst of right here, you realize houses don't belong here.
SCHUERMAN: That's Joe Tirone. I talked to him a little ways down the street, where workers are removing the cement slab of another house. He organized the neighbors and convinced New York state to buyout whoever wanted to sell.
TIRONE: It's insane to think that this looked like this 30 or 40 years ago and someone said oh, I can build some homes here.
SCHUERMAN: The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, embraced the buyouts. He's devoted $600 million of federal Sandy relief money to the project. That'll cover roughly 750 homes - not just here in Fox Beach, but at other sites on Staten Island and on Long Island as well. Environmentalists say the money is well worth it.
ERIC GOLDSTEIN: NRDC, how may I direct your call?
SCHUERMAN: To ask why, I went to the headquarters of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It's in Manhattan, about 15 miles from Fox Beach. Eric Goldstein is a senior attorney.
GOLDSTEIN: A the problem is a national problem. Population in coastal counties is increasing. More property and more lives are at risk now along the coasts in terms of endangerment and future storms than perhaps ever before.
SCHUERMAN: The idea buyouts, or retreating from flood-prone areas, took root about 20 years ago. Government agencies calculated, in some cases, it would cost less money than repeatedly bailing out the same homeowners for every flood.
GOLDSTEIN: Living along the coast and having an ocean view is very enticing. Unfortunately, there are some coastal areas where that is problematic.
SCHUERMAN: Back on Staten Island, where more than 40 homes have been torn down so far, the buyouts are not only removing people from dangerous areas, they are creating open space that will act as a buffer to blunt the force and absorb some of the water of the next storm surge. Rebecca Sinclair works for the New York State governor's Office of Storm Recovery.
REBECCA SINCLAIR: It should be actually a rather a peaceful place where you could come and walk and view different wildlife. I mean, I think there's real potential here.
SCHUERMAN: Here in Fox Beach, nature is already returning. The reeds have grown more than 10 feet tall in places. People see deer, herons and hawks regularly. The former residence that moved upland to higher ground, sometimes just a few blocks but far enough back to be out of harm's way for the next storm. On Kissam Avenue in Staten Island, I'm Matthew Schuerman for the NPR cities project.
CORNISH: And you can follow the City's Project on Twitter @NPRCities.
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