After Hurricane Sandy, the south shore of Staten Island looked like it had been hit by a tsunami. The storm surge devastated whole neighborhoods suddenly, in a matter of hours. In the year since the storm, some families have been rebuilding their homes and their lives. Others are ready to sell their flood-damaged properties and move on.
Joe Salluzzo lives in a neighborhood called New Dorp Beach, a few blocks from the ocean. He rode out the storm on the second story of his brick bungalow, which he's been repairing himself ever since.
"People are coming back little by little," Salluzzo says. He's staying put: "This is the only house I got."
Around the corner, Linda Azzara is basking in the sunshine on the deck in her front yard. A year ago, she was clinging to it for dear life as the floodwaters rose.
"We were the last family rescued here. They took us out from the top step in a boat," she says.
Today Azzara's yard is immaculate. And her house is in good shape, too. But she says the repairs cost $80,000 out of her own pocket; her insurance company was no help. She says few of her neighbors saw any payments from theirs either. Officials at FEMA say they've distributed more than $8 billion in total disaster assistance in New York. But in her neighborhood, Azzara says, that help has been inconsistent.
"I think it was who came to your house," she says. "If you were lucky to get somebody with a little heart, they helped you. If not, they gave you $200."
'We Are Staying'
Azzara has a red and white sign on her fence that says "We Are Staying" You see the same sign in windows and front yards up and down her block. But for many of her neighbors, the hard work continues.
Electricians are still working on the house next door. A few houses on the block have new windows and doors. Others look like they've been abandoned since the storm.
"Everybody thinks a year later, we're New York and ... everybody's fine and dandy. No, it isn't," says Scott McGrath, who lives across the street. "It's real out there. It's still a lot of people needing help."
McGrath and his wife started a nonprofit organization called Beacon of Hope New York to help rebuild the neighborhood. They made the "We Are Staying" yard signs. But McGrath admits that not everyone will. Like many of his neighbors, McGrath has to decide whether to meet new requirements to raise his house farther off the ground or face a huge jump in his flood insurance premiums.
"You can walk up and down the block and you're gonna see 'for sale' signs in a lot of areas. They're selling their homes due to the fact they're not going to be able to pay that flood insurance so you might as well cut your losses now," McGrath says. "A lot of people are gonna take a hit on their property."
Homeowners across the region are finding they can't sell their houses for anything near what they were worth before the storm. But in another part of Staten Island, there is one big exception to that rule.
When Rebuilding Is Not An Option
Samantha Langello opens the door to her house in the Fox Beach neighborhood or what's left of it. Sandy was the third big flood here in five years.
"It kind of just melted," Langello says. "The saltwater like just ate through the Sheetrock."
When the state offered to buy these homeowners out at pre-storm values, almost all of them jumped at the chance. Real estate broker Joseph Tirone who owns a rental property in Fox Beach helped organize the effort. Tirone says the first checks went out this month.
"Rebuilding was not an option here. Not in this area," he says. "When they start getting their checks, I think initially they're going to be extremely happy. But I think walking away from their home, that's going to be tough on them."
Langello toting a 2-year-old on her hip says it's not easy to watch the neighborhood where she's been raising her two young children turn back into marshland.
"Sad and relief are probably the two main emotions," she says.
Langello knows her family is lucky to be getting the buyout.
"You get a little tired of picking up your wet sea-smelling clothes and going through things to see what you can salvage. In that sense I'm relieved that I won't have to deal with the cleanup ever again," she says.
Langello hopes other Sandy victims can know that feeling, too. But for most, that sense of relief may still be months or years away.