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Last Stand at Oakwood Beach

Buyouts and good-byes on Staten Island.

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HOUSE NOW BOOBY TRAPPED WELCOME reads a greeting spray-painted onto plywood that was once the wall of a home in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island. Four months after Sandy, boats litter the neighborhood’s sidewalks, and a visitor can peer through gutted kitchens to daylight on the other side. Of the 165 families that once lived here, 145 (and counting) have signed on for a pilot buyout program Governor Cuomo announced this week. The terms are straightforward: The state will pay 100 percent of the pre-storm value of their homes, plus another 5 percent if they relocate within the borough. The cost of staying is harder to calculate.

“I gonna have one of the most beautiful views in the world!” says Tom Guardavaccaro, a 66-year-old contractor from Bari, Italy. He has put his name on the buyout list but says he’ll happily hunker down and have the state build parkland around him if the price isn’t right. “If they knock that house down,” he says, pointing, “I gonna see the whole bay. I gonna see Sandy Hook and everything.”

Guardavaccaro’s house was already up for sale before the storm; unlike the thirties bungalows that surround it, it’s a sturdy three stories—too big for him and his wife now that their kids are grown. He built it in 1998, when city code required the house be elevated above the flood plain. He sustained damage only to his garage and basement. His biggest loss was his truck. “It went for a swim.” But he understands why his neighbors would want out. “They really go through hell,” he says. “The water was up to the roof over there. I don’t think everybody wants to live with the fear.”

Evelyn Gonzalez, a 73-year-old college history professor, is afraid of regret. She and her husband, a carpenter, built their elevated brick home in 1988 on four lots they’d bought at auc­­­tion in the seventies and held on to until they could finally afford construction. “It has memory. It has sentiment. It wasn’t something that we bought, it’s something that we worked very hard to save up for and build.” She’s already repaired her home with her FEMA money, but she also doesn’t want her son, who has three small children in Windsor Terrace, to inherit a property he can’t sell. “I don’t want him to be stuck with an albatross around his neck.” Gonzalez has lived alone in the house since her husband died five years ago. “I love my house, but what can you do?” she says. “I don’t want to be all by myself.”

A group of disaster researchers from Japan has come by to get a tour of the neighborhood from Joe Tirone, head of the buyout committee. He used to rent out a bungalow nearby. The first among his dazed and devastated neighbors to start demolition, Tirone realized the need for someone to take charge; he reached out to other communities that had organized buyouts, like Nashville after the 2010 floods and upstate New York after Irene. Most of the holdouts, Tirone says, haven’t said no; they just haven’t been found. “There’s not one person who verbally said, ‘No, there’s no way I’m going to go.’ The nos have all been qualified with ‘This buyout’s never gonna happen.’ There’s a crazy possibility that the entire neighborhood could leave. It’s extremely sad.”

Esther Toscher walks over. A mother of two small children, she’s moved from her home in Oakwood Beach to a rental a few blocks away. It had rained the night before, and she’s come to check on her yard. “It’s flooded, per usual,” she says.

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