Sandy knocked them down. Nothing will make them go away.
Ten years after the superstorm, residents of Mastic Beach on Long Island are rooted to the shore despite the growing risk of rising seas and more severe storms
Kelly and neighbors in this working-class community endured a debilitating storm, discarding destroyed washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and mattresses. They then faced an agonizing dilemma: rebuild or move out after accepting government buyouts. Kelly decided to stay put.
Many of Kelly’s neighbors are just as defiant, choosing to stay despite the danger posed by future storms and floods that will intensify due to climate change.
While parts of New York and New Jersey take into account how they have become more resilient in the ten years since Sandy — by elevating and insulating thousands of homes and returning the coast to nature elsewhere — Kelly said he accepts the risk that comes with his decision.
“If there’s a storm, we’re going to get beat up,” he said. “We will rebuild it again.”
Local officials: Buyouts are the best option
On a recent drive surveying the most vulnerable areas, Brookhaven City Councilman Daniel Panico bobbed his SUV through tire-deep puddles on the exposed peninsula at the edge of Mastic Beach, which is part of the greater city of Brookhaven.
Where there used to be five bungalows, only one remains, the others were bought and demolished by the state. Empty shells cover what was once an asphalt road, now eroding into a swamp. Mastic Beach is one of the lowest areas on Long Island.
Panic and other local officials, buyouts are one of the primary solutions to build resilience to the encroaching ocean.
“You know, realistically, you can’t have homes here anymore,” Panico said. “The city or any government cannot keep the water out of the bay.”
However, Panic’s “proactive approach to natural habitat restoration” has been baffled by Mastic Beach residents who refuse to withdraw from the water.
Mastic Beach suffered significant damage when Sandy washed ashore from the Jersey Shore to New York to Long Island. More than a fifth of all homes on Mastic Beach are flooded with ocean water up to chest height. Then-Mayor Bill Biondi he said it was the worst storm for his city since the hurricane of 1938.
In an effort to protect residents from the wrath of another catastrophic storm, Brookhaven has focused on voluntary, fair market offers to homeowners in flood-prone areas. These estates were demolished and returned to their natural state, as a swamp.
“We need the wetland to act as a sponge to try to absorb some of the flooding that’s going to happen in the future and now,” said Edward Romaine, Brookhaven Township Supervisor.
In Mastic Beach, a predominantly white community, interest in buyouts it was high from residents without the means to rebuild. Brookhaven spent more than $1.6 million to purchase the parcels, which span more than 50 acres. The goal is to acquire 375 hectares.
Brookhaven’s efforts are part of a broader state buyback strategy, spurred by residents who saw Sandy as the last straw after back-to-back floods.
Through a federally funded grant, New York State spent $270 million to buy 721 flood-prone properties whose owners volunteered for buyout in the year after Sandy, according to the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. They are spread across Staten Island and the south shore of Long Island, as well as areas north of New York prone to river flooding. The $4.5 billion grant is also aimed at building some 11,000 homes, mostly on Long Island, said Paul Lozito, the office’s chief program officer.
“The goal was that if you wanted to stay, you could get your home out of harm’s way, or get out of harm’s way,” Lozito said. At no point in the process did we “never want to displace anyone who didn’t want to leave.”
Going forward, storm preparation and recovery will continue to include a combination of buyback and elevations, as well as restoration of wetlands and shoreline vegetation to provide natural protection from the storm, he said.
“All options are on the table,” Lozito said.
Even some residents who chose to stay, like Peter Wimett, had to make big changes.
Wimett’s home, lifted 13 feet into the air by Sandy, offers a reminder of the storm’s scars, future risks and his own challenges. He said the bank informed him he had to foreclose on his home to keep the mortgage.
After suffering a stroke, he walks with a cane, while his wife was disabled after a car accident, so gathering the strength to climb stairs is a challenge.
“Every time I have to leave my house for whatever reason … I don’t look forward to it,” said Wimett, who is 62. “I’m not happy about it because I’m going up and down stairs with a cane and things like that, it’s very difficult for me to get around.”
Many residents with elevated homes said they had to park their cars on raised slabs of land, put on rubber boots and wade through deep ocean water to get to their homes after work.
“Your house is high and dry, but you can’t get to it,” said Kevin Collins, president of the Mastic Beach Homeowners Association. His downstairs living room was flooded by the storm, his wife’s piano floated in the waves, but he decided to stay.
While raising homes offers a solution, experts say, it may be temporary. A 2016 study predicts that extreme flooding similar to Sandy will increase sharply in the coming decades.
“Elevating homes is fine as long as you don’t get a flood higher than your design elevation,” said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the State Floodplain Managers Association. Given the risks of future storms, compounded by rising sea levels and increasing storm intensity, “it’s a bit of a bad proposition,” he said.
Despite the threat of flooded roads and homes, many residents chose to overlook the risk because they could not imagine living anywhere else.
“We’ve been here since 1967, we grew up here,” said Mike Kobasiuk, whose home flooded four feet during Sandy. “We’ve seen the storms come, we’ve seen them go. This is our home.”
A risky future for waterfront homeowners
As the memory of Sandy’s destruction fades for some Mastic Beach residents, the possibility of another disaster looms.
The risk of hurricanes hitting New York and southern New England is “definitely increasing,” said Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University who focuses on extreme weather.
A A study led by NOAA published in 2014 found that, with each passing decade, tropical cyclones peak at higher latitudes, meaning more northerly parts of the East Coast face stronger storms.
Even during normal weather, there are signs of water danger. Light showers can completely saturate the roadways. Near the bay, calm water languishes on the tops of drainage channels. High water and flooding have been and will continue to be a daily occurrence for Mastic Beach residents, Biondi said.
Catherine Kobasiuk has already mentally prepared herself for the idea that in 100 years her home, which was destroyed by Sandy and then rebuilt and rebuilt, will be reclaimed by the sea. She resigned herself to the fact that the ocean water would reclaim the land and turn all of Mastic Beach into a swamp.
“I told my daughter that she will survive it, but I don’t think she will have our house after that,” Kobasyuk said.
While there is no clear solution to combating ocean encroachment and the future of Mastic Beach remains to be seen, many residents who choose to stay they see it as a problem for the next generation.
“I will not retire. I didn’t. I’m here,” Collins said. “My children may have a problem.”
Forty feet of sandy beach once served as a divider between the asphalt road and the ocean at the end of Joe Kelly’s block. Now the ocean is nibbling at the outer edges of the road. Still, Kelly sits in her high-rise house and waits for the ocean to rise again.
“Fingers are crossed,” Kelly told The Post. “Take your chances down here by the water.”
Dance reports from Washington.