WEATHER NEWS: Sandy knocked them down. Nothing will make them leave.
Ten years after the superstorm, residents of Long Island’s Mastic Beach are rooted to the coast despite a growing risk from rising seas and fiercer storms
October 28, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EDT
MASTIC BEACH, N.Y. — When Joe Kelly learned Superstorm Sandy was headed toward his home on Long Island’s southern shore, he threw a “hurricane party.” Concern overtook the boozing and laughter as water from the ocean surge extinguished the fire roaring in his living room. Cocktail tables that held beer were left floating in seawater.
Kelly and neighbors in this working-class community endured a grueling storm aftermath, discarding destroyed washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and mattresses. They then faced an agonizing dilemma: Rebuild or move away after accepting government buyouts. Kelly decided he would stay put.
Many of Kelly’s neighbors are just as defiant, choosing to stay despite the danger posed by future storms and flooding that will intensify because of climate change.
As parts of New York and New Jersey take stock of how they have become more resilient a decade after Sandy — raising and floodproofing thousands of homes and returning the shore to nature in other places — Kelly said he accepts the risk that comes with his decision.
“If a storm comes in, we’re going to get beat down,” he said. “We’re going to rebuild again.”
Local officials: Buyouts are the best option
On a recent drive exploring the most vulnerable areas, Brookhaven town councilman Daniel Panico seesawed his SUV through tire-deep puddles on an exposed peninsula at the edge of Mastic Beach, which is part of the larger town of Brookhaven.
Where five bungalows used to sit, only one is left, the others bought and demolished by the government. Empty seashells dot what was once an asphalt road, now eroding away into marsh. Mastic Beach is one of the lowest lying areas on Long Island.
“You know, realistically, you cannot have homes here anymore,” Panico said. “The town or any entity of government cannot hold back the water from the bay.”
However, Panico’s “proactive approach at restoring the natural habitat” has been muddled by the Mastic Beach residents who refuse to retreat from the water.
Mastic Beach suffered significant damage when Sandy walloped coastline from the Jersey Shore to New York City to Long Island. More than a fifth of all homes in Mastic Beach were inundated by ocean water up to chest-high. Then-Mayor Bill Biondi said it was the worst storm for his town since the hurricane of 1938.
In an effort to shield residents from the wrath of another catastrophic storm, Brookhaven has focused on making voluntary, fair-market offers to homeowners in flood-prone areas. These properties were torn down and returned to their natural state, as marshland.
“We need the marshland to act as a sponge to try to absorb some of the flooding that will be taking place in the future and now,” said Edward Romaine, Brookhaven’s town supervisor.
In Mastic Beach, a predominantly White community, interest in buyoutswas high from residents without the means to rebuild. Brookhaven has spent more than $1.6 million to acquire parcels of land that stretch across more than 50 acres.The goal is to acquire 375 acres.
Brookhaven’s efforts are part of a broader state strategy of buyouts, prompted by residents for whom Sandy was the last straw after repeated floods.
Through a federally funded grant, New York state spent $270 million to buy 721 flood-prone properties whose owners volunteered for buyouts in the year after Sandy, according to the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. They were spread across Staten Island and the southern shore of Long Island, as well as an area north of New York City prone to river flooding. The $4.5 billion grant also went toward elevating some 11,000 homes, largely on Long Island, said Paul Lozito, the office’s chief program officer.
“The goal was, if you want to stay, you can elevate your home out of harm’s way, or you can move out of harm’s way,” Lozito said. At no point in the process “did we ever want to displace anybody who did not want to leave.”
Moving forward, storm preparation and recovery will continue to include a combination of buyouts and home elevations, as well as restoration of wetlands and shoreline vegetation to provide natural storm buffers, he said.
“All options are on the table,” Lozito said.
Even some residents who have chosen to stay, such as Peter Wimett, have had to make major adjustments.
Wimmet’s home, raised 13 feet in the air since Sandy, offers a reminder of the storm’s scars, future risks and his own challenges. He said his bank informed him that he had to elevate his home in order to keep his mortgage.
After suffering a stroke, he walks with a cane, while his wife was left disabled after a car crash, so mustering the strength to climb the stairs is a challenge.
“Every time I have to go out of my house for whatever reason … I don’t look forward to it,” said Wimett, who is 62. “I’m not happy about it because getting up and down the stairs with the cane and things of that sort, it’s very difficult for me to get around.”
Many residents with raised homes said they have to park their cars on elevated slabs of land, put on rubber boots and wade through shin 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 Property Owners Association. His own ground floor living room was submerged by the storm, his wife’s piano floating in the surge, but he decided to stay.
While raising homes offers a solution, experts say, it may be a temporary one. A 2016 study projected that Sandy-like extreme flood events will increase sharply over the coming decades.
“Elevating homes is good until there’s a flood higher than the elevation that you design to,” said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Given the risks of future storms, amplified by sea level rise and increasing storm intensity, “that is kind of a dicey proposition,” he said.
Despite the threat of flooded roads and homes, many residents have chosen to overlook the risk because they can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“We’ve been out here since 1967, grew up out here,” said Mike Kobasiuk, whose home received four feet of flooding during Sandy. “We’ve seen storms come, we’ve seen them go. This is our home.”
A risky future for shoreline 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 going up,” said Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University focused on extreme weather.
A NOAA-led study published in 2014 found that, with each passing decade, tropical cyclones are reaching peak intensity at higher latitudes, meaning more northern stretches of the East Coast face worse storms.
Even during normal weather, signs of water’s threat emerges. Light rain showers can completely saturate roadways. Near the bay, still water languishes at the top of flood drains. High water and flood has been and will continue to be an everyday occurrence for Mastic Beach residents, Biondi said.
Catherine Kobasiuk has already mentally prepared for the idea that in 100 years, her home that was gutted by Sandy, rebuilt and elevated in its aftermath, will be taken by the sea once more. She has come to terms with the fact that ocean water will reclaim the land and turn all of Mastic Beach into a marsh.
“I told my daughter she’ll live through it, but I don’t think she’ll have our house after that,” Kobasiuk said.
While there isn’t a clear solution to combating the encroachment of the ocean and the future of Mastic Beach remains to be seen, the many residents that choose to staysee it as a problem for the next generation.
“I’m not going to retreat. I’m not. I’m here,” Collins said. “My kids might have a problem.”
Forty feet of sandy beach used to serve as a divider between the asphalt road and the ocean at the end of Joe Kelly’s block. Now the ocean nibbles on the outer edges of the road. Still, Kelly sits in his unelevated home waiting for the ocean to rise again.
“We cross our fingers,” Kelly told The Post. “You take a chance down here by the water.”