KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
More than 60,000 homes were damaged by the flooding in Louisiana a couple of weeks ago. Government flood insurance will help a lot of families rebuild if that's what they want to do. A lot of times after a disaster like this, the hard question is whether to rebuild. Jess Jiang from our Planet Money podcast went to a place where that question has been asked many times over the years, a neighborhood in New York's Staten Island.
JESS JIANG, BYLINE: Joe Tirone is standing in front of 87 Fox Beach Avenue, though it's hard to tell. There is no house here, just a little black number sign.
There used to be a house here?
JOE TIRONE: There used to be a house here, yeah. When you walk down this street, you would see all these bungalows and everybody - every single person had flags.
JIANG: American flags. Joe says his bungalow was simple and white with beautiful windows and a white picket fence. Fox Beach flooded a lot. There was the nor'easter in '92, when homes were in 3 to 7 feet of water. And more recently, big storms like Irene in 2011 and Isaac the next year. But the big storm of 2012, Sandy, was different.
TIRONE: And we lost three people on this block.
JIANG: Three people died?
TIRONE: Yes. It was a father and his son. And at the top of Fox Beach there was an older gentleman who perished.
JIANG: After Sandy, a lot of people here were ready to pack up, leave their homes and retreat. And New York state wanted to help them. Carolyn Kousky is an economist in Washington D.C. who studies natural disasters. She's looked at the government's flood insurance program, and it's struggled since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
CAROLYN KOUSKY: One of the biggest problems with the flood insurance is the fact that it is billions of dollars in debt and has no way to ever repay its debt.
JIANG: Carolyn says one issue is the government helps homeowners in frequently flooded places to rebuild and maybe get damaged again. That's expensive.
KOUSKY: There's this group of properties - they have flooded multiple times. Maybe these frequently flooded areas - it's actually more cost effective to buy them out.
JIANG: This is starting to happen. People are selling their homes to the government to be knocked down so the land can go back to nature forever. Joe led the buyout effort on Fox Beach. He knew a program would be approved if the whole neighborhood was interested. So he started selling the idea around the block. And so far on Fox Beach and the surrounding Oakwood Beach area, 299 of the 320 homes have been bought out. The homes aren't all gone, but nature is already taking over.
TIRONE: This used to be the corner store for the Fox Beach area.
JIANG: Now it's just grass. Joe and I walked around the neighborhood. There are still a few homes checkerboarding the block. Some of them have big red dots spray painted near the door.
What does the red dot mean?
TIRONE: That's tagged for - definitely for demolition.
JIANG: Oh, so that - that is going to go down?
TIRONE: Yeah, yeah.
KOUSKY: But some homes don't have red dots. I walk up to one.
ANTHONY DEFRANCISCO: Yeah, hello?
JIANG: Hi, I'm a reporter for National Public Radio, NPR, and I'm just working on a story...
Anthony DeFrancisco is still living on Fox Beach Avenue. He says, after Sandy, he did the bare minimum to make the house livable. He hasn't even painted all the walls.
DEFRANCISCO: A little messy because we never thought we'd be here so why fix up everything, you know?
JIANG: Oh, you didn't think you were going to be?
DEFRANCISCO: Not this long. I mean, we just figured, you know, we'd accept the buyout and everything.
JIANG: Anthony says he wants to move. After Sandy, his sister and four kids moved out of the basement unit and onto the first floor with him. They didn't feel safe, and the government wants to help him move. For two years, they've been waiting to finalize their buyout, but he says he's stuck because he can't get enough money to buy somewhere else. Now instead of neighbors, he's got wildlife.
DEFRANCISCO: It's nice - look at this. It's like living in Pennsylvania. Where can you get this in New York? Look, all this open space and I have a snapping turtle sometimes crosses the street up there - big turtle like this. It's cute.
JIANG: Anthony loves the animals, but he's worried about the next flood. He's ready to go. Jess Jiang, NPR News.
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