October 29, 2012, was the worst day of Bridgette Rosita’s life.
Just before 7 pm, Oakwood Beach, a quiet bungalowed neighborhood on the east shore of Staten Island, was shattered by Hurricane Sandy. Houses, entirely uprooted, floated down streets submerged under 12-foot waves of stormwater. In half an hour, the area was unrecognizable. Three people died, including a father and son, found in a flooded basement, wrapped in each other’s arms.
“You had cars floating away and electrical wires flashing in the water,” Rosita remembers. Yelling and screaming filled the houses around her as she swam through the darkness into a neighbor’s attic to wait out the worst. Her husband was trapped in their home; neither would know the other survived until the next morning.
In the wake of the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded, Oakwood came together: Relatives arrived to clean houses; donated shoes, mops, and disinfectant were trucked in; local restaurants served free meals in the streets.
A year passed. Then, in 2013, Oakwood came together again, this time to tear itself apart.
As part of the US’s first ever urban “managed retreat,” locals applied for the New York state Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) to buy their homes at pre-storm value. The community would have a chance to scatter inland, away from future floods, and Oakwood Beach would never be the same.
Houses were bulldozed and their foundations reseeded, all with the promise that the land would never again be developed, but would instead return to nature, serving as a buffer for the island against future storms.
Now that promise has been broken by plans that urban planning and climate law experts say may break state law. Ten years have passed since Hurricane Sandy, and the state has resold more than half of the lots it bought in Oakwood — mostly, in 2019, to a sports league with plans to develop six playing fields and what their representatives describe as a “stadium,” with bleachers and a “clubhouse,” on the streets between the lots.
In order to limit flooding on their fields, the Staten Island Youth Soccer League (SIYSL) also intends to lay concrete foundations under certain areas, redirecting water to the streets and land surrounding them.
GOSR maintains that Oakwood has successfully been returned to nature and become a “coastal buffer” against storms, but would not comment on the league’s plans. The league argues that local opponents are not-in-my-backyard grumblers who would resent any changes to their neighborhood.
“The problem we have is that these owners have become accustomed to having all of this well groomed, open grass area for them to sit outside and have a cup of coffee,” said Fred Cipriani, the league’s treasurer. “You know, they don’t want 2,000 kids running around here on a Saturday.”
Construction began earlier this month. The league will celebrate a breaking ground ceremony, complete with a DJ and costume competition, today, on the 29th: Sandy’s 10th anniversary.
‘This Was Never My Vision’
Joseph Tirone, an ex-resident and realtor now running for state Senate, led Oakwood’s local buyout committee in 2013. Visiting his old neighborhood now, Tirone is greeted by what he describes as a “complete violation” of everything he worked for.
“I don’t think anything like this would fit into a managed retreat concept,” he said. “This was never my vision. I thought they were going to let everything grow. I envisioned swamp.”
In more than one way, New York state promised locals that the land would never be built on.
First, as an “enhanced buyout area,” all of Oakwood Beach was limited by the 2013 federal grant that paid for the land such that “all structures must be removed and the land can only be used for environmental purposes, including wetlands restoration.”
Second, in 2015, the state passed a law requiring that buyout land “be dedicated and maintained in perpetuity as open space for the conservation of natural floodplain functions.”
The law does mention that land can be put to “recreational use” for the public if it still fulfills its environmental functions. But Liz Koslov, a UCLA urban planning professor who is writing a book about managed retreats after Sandy, told New York Focus that the development plans arguably break the law by fencing the fields, which makes them no longer public, and by laying concrete foundations, which would prevent water absorption in a flood.
The league said its lawyers and architects approved the plans.
The strongest promise of all was made directly to locals, in weekly meetings with state officials and even in speeches by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, who declared that “the coastline belongs to Mother Nature” and described “oyster beds, wetlands, marshlands, and grasslands” that would be built in the place of their old homes.
“The dominant expectation was that it would become this wetland system with some kind of public space,” Koslov said. “The two legally questionable pieces seem antithetical to the stated purpose of these projects.”
At the time of the buyout, state Department of Environmental Conservation officials and Interboro, an urban design firm, both presented wetland restoration plans which were never taken up.
If locals could have seen Oakwood as it is now, Tirone said, the buyout would never have happened. “They would have actually gone into foreclosure. They would have lost everything rather than sell it if they thought that it was going to go to someone,” he said.
“They were gonna give it back to the deer and the muskrats: God, nature,” Tirone continued. “This is why people sold their homes, why they sacrificed.”
GOSR bought out 308 lots in 2013, of which 186 have been transferred: some to the city’s Parks Department and some to a bar for army veterans, but most to the league for a courtesy payment of $10 for just under six acres.
Standing beside the churned earth, Tirone said that politically speaking, it’s “almost impossible” to criticize the plans. “If they were building condos, then you’d say this is absolutely outrageous, but they’re building soccer fields.”
“Ninety-five percent of Staten Island would say, ‘What’s your problem?’ But I have a problem because I got so deep into it. I know what it should have been,” he said. “When God made the earth he didn’t make soccer fields, did he?”
The league’s board says that it has obeyed the restrictions it was given when the land was transferred to it in 2019. Using what he described as a “loophole,” the league’s president, Robert Libertelli, plans to demap the streets between their lots and build a clubhouse on land that was never subject to buyout terms.
Individuals and organizations can apply to the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) to demap unimproved streets if they own the surrounding land and can show that closing the roads would not adversely affect traffic in the area. “Those streets were technically public property and were not part of the program,” Libertelli said. “So it gives us a little flexibility.” (According to DCP, the league has not yet submitted a demapping application.)
Another obstacle to the development of the soccer complex is five households that still live on one of the fields. The league purchased all of the lots between the remaining homes with the understanding that at least two were in talks with GOSR for another buyout. According to the league, those plans have fallen through since the surrounding land was transferred.
At present, the remaining homes obstruct three of the six acres owned by the league. Cipriani is optimistic the issue can be “remedied.”
Meanwhile, residents who haven’t moved yet feel little inclination to do so now. “Whatever development plans they have, this house is in the middle of it,” said Richard Perniola, who lives in one of the five houses with his elderly mother and has no intention of leaving.
‘Nature Made This a Sponge’
The league acknowledges the possibility of flooding to the area and specifically plans to mitigate those risks. “When we build the [remaining] fields, we’re going to need a 40-by-40 foundation, so that the water and the remnants of nature doesn’t screw up the field,” Cipriani said.
Water absorption, however, is exactly what makes wetlands effective flood barriers.
The complex network of roots that form wetlands allow them to act “like natural tubs or sponges” for floodwater, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The area sold to the SIYSL, for example, could have stored up to 9 million gallons of floodwater in future storms — enough to fill 500 average swimming pools.
Oakwood had the potential to be more than just a buffer if restored to wetland in the fullest ecological sense. Coastal wetlands capture carbon 50 times faster than rainforests, by enclosing dead organic matter in mud before it can begin to rot. Sometimes called “biological supermarkets,” wetlands play host to aquatic plants, endangered mammals, and about half of all North American bird species. More than 85 percent of global wetlands have been lost since 1700, according to the United Nations.
John and Kathy McMahon live next to the first new playing field and woke to the sound of excavators when construction started on a Saturday morning. Loud noises have disturbed their 88-year-old father since he fought in the Korean War. But above all, they were upset to lose the nature that has arrived in Oakwood since Sandy.
“If you came here at nighttime, you’d see all the beautiful nature that comes out,” Mr. McMahon said. “A family of foxes just moved here. Prairie dogs, raccoons, possums, deer, you name it, it’s all here.”
For Devon McGhee, a coastal resilience planner who studied Oakwood’s buyout at Duke University, managed retreats are a powerful idea because they bring the excitement of a new beginning. Each project is “a clean slate,” she said. “So there’s a lot of possibility.”
Imagining those lost possibilities is exactly what hurts the McMahons most. “People could have seen all the nature here; it would have been beautiful,” said Mr. McMahon.
‘A Big Bomb Site’
Initially, the return of nature made Oakwood a flagship model for managed retreat. A 2020 survey by the Georgetown Climate Center listed the program “as an example of a successful community-led voluntary buyout effort … that could be replicated in other vulnerable coastal locations.”
That notion chafes locals like Bobby Rosita, Bridgette’s husband, who has lived in Oakwood for over 40 years and visited his grandmother’s house for beach trips in the neighborhood long before that.
“I don’t see where the success is,” he said, pointing to houses still to be demolished and garbage dumped along the neighboring streets. “It’s a big bomb site.”
According to the fourth US National Climate Assessment in 2018, “retreat will become an unavoidable option” across the country “in all but the very lowest sea level rise projections.” Since then, retreats have been proposed in vulnerable communities from California to New Orleans. In the wake of Hurricane Ian this year, the idea is gaining traction in Florida too.
“You can take a picture and send it to them,” Mr. Rosita said the week after Hurricane Ian hit the East Coast. “This is a prime example of what not to do. … Whoever said this is the prime thing to look at, I don’t know what they’re smoking.”
Rosita is not the only resident who declined to take up the buyout in 2013, and who now feels forgotten by the city. Since GOSR stopped sending security to monitor the empty houses, dumping and petty theft have become the norm, according to locals who stayed. None of them were even told when the land was transferred; Rosita said he learned from state-contracted gardeners after they stopped mowing grass on lots GOSR had resold.
The state maintains that Oakwood is a successful buyout and managed retreat. “By returning properties to nature, we allow land to act as a coastal buffer, absorb stormwater, and reduce flood risk,” said Paul Onyx Lozito, GOSR’s chief strategy and program officer.
GOSR would not comment on the league’s plans, whether they constitute a return to nature, or whether they break the law, only noting that the retreat program “has enabled hundreds of Staten Island families to relocate out of harm’s way.”
“From great loss can come great advantage to future generations,” Cipriani said when asked if a celebration on the superstorm’s anniversary was insensitive. “What we’re trying to do really is to make a positive legacy on that tragic day.”
Despite his frustration with the league’s plans, Tirone maintains the buyout itself was successful in removing his neighbors from the path of future flooding. On that score, he said, “as far as I’m concerned, it was the most successful endeavor in the history of storm resiliency.”
McGhee’s research paints a less cheerful picture, finding that former Oakwood residents are still at risk of natural disasters and more socially vulnerable than before.
One in five buyout participants from the east shore of Staten Island moved to a flood risk area, McGhee found. Worse, according to the same study, 99 percent moved somewhere more “socially vulnerable” to future disasters — a metric determined by variables like population density, poverty levels, and educational attainment.
Ten years on, the few households that stayed in Oakwood — because the buyout couldn’t cover their mortgage, or because they just did not want to move — are left with a bitter sense of vindication.
Mrs. Rosita last saw most of her old neighbors together for a five-year anniversary reunion. “Some of them are still living in apartments now,” she recalled. Far from protecting locals financially, she thinks the buyout has left many of her old neighbors poorer and forced to downsize. Some had to use buyout money to pay off mortgages, and others were made to deduct any insurance they received after Sandy from their buyout offer.
These flaws spurred McGhee’s research. “Learning from Oakwood Beach, we need to look at both sides of the retreat coin,” she said. “Yes, you need to leave, but you also need to find someplace to go.”
With those who moved economically worse off and those who stayed bitterly frustrated with how they have been treated, it’s hard to imagine the seaside neighborhood Oakwood used to be. After 10 years, those holding on to a community that came together at its lowest are left politically disillusioned and resentful.
“It’s a nightmare,” Mr. Rosita said. “They lied to all of us.”