The hundreds of thousands of people who live along New York City’s 520 miles of waterfront have spent the seven years since Hurricane Sandy wondering whether the city is prepared for another wallop. So far, the answer seems to be: Not really.
The city’s online Flood Hazard Mapper shows areas labeled “high risk” for flooding. It’s not just oceanfront areas like Coney Island, the Rockaways and the eastern shore of Staten Island, but also swaths of the East Village and the Upper East Side plus parts of Long Island City, Greenpoint and the South Bronx.
The sheer diversity of waterfront neighborhoods means that people of all income levels are vulnerable, though the city says smaller buildings with one to four families face 10 times the risk of apartment buildings.
“I defy anyone to tell me New York City is ready for the next Hurricane Sandy,” city councilman Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge, tweeted in late July, when heavy rains knocked out power, and, in a viral video, caused riders on a Staten Island bus to climb onto seats as rainwater rushed in. That was early in hurricane season, which starts June 1 but typically peaks in late summer before ending Nov. 30. “I want to be wrong, but I know I’m not,” Brannan added.
About 80% of vulnerable properties in coastal areas like Coney Island, Canarsie and Far Rockaway are still without flood insurance, according to news site The City. That’s not much progress for a city that both acknowledges the threat of storms and climate change and has worked hard to rebuild beaches and homes destroyed after Sandy surged through on Oct. 29, 2012, killing 43 New Yorkers and severely damaging thousands of homes.
After the storm, the city launched the Build It Back program to use federal funds to assist residents with recovery, repairs and or storm-proofing homes. The initiative, plagued with complaints of poor management and delays, has cost the city a more-than-projected $2.2 billion. A study this year revealed more than half of Build It Back applicants dropped out before getting any benefits. The federal government has also agreed to build a $615 million, five-mile seawall to help protect Staten Island.
Given all the risks, who still buys property in threatened areas? The Post talked to three homeowners in “high risk” places to find out.
A ‘storm-proof’ new build in Brooklyn
Chris McConnell had just broken ground on his home in Red Hook when Sandy hit. The storm overwhelmed the low-lying neighborhood, flooding its nautical-themed restaurants, cracking the foundation of its most iconic bar, Sunny’s, and leaving many of the 8,000 tenants of the Red Hook Houses — the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn — without heat and hot water for weeks.
McConnell’s architect’s office was also wiped out in the storm. That designer reached out, asking, “Are you sure you still want to do this?” But the 56-year-old tech professional’s love of the neighborhood outweighed the storm’s ominous exposure of its fragility.
“We said, ‘Absolutely, let’s keep going,’” says McConnell, who relocated with his wife and two kids from Clinton Hill. “This is where we wanted to be.”
Straddling pre- and post-storm construction rules, McConnell decided to add more preventive measures than planned, lifting the 3,000-square-foot townhouse 6 feet off the ground, adding concrete to make it heavier and raising the boiler and mechanicals.
“We just overcompensated a little bit,” he says, “so we wouldn’t be recreating the issues people had with 19th-century houses in Red Hook.” The flat neighborhood, surrounded by water on three sides and built up long before flooding and climate change were on the horizon, has many warehouses and industrial buildings that have since been repurposed into apartments, art studios and wineries.
McConnell’s vacant lot cost $390,000, according to property records. It’s now on the market for $3.49 million with Douglas Elliman’s Patty LaRocco. One of the first homes built in the neighborhood after the storm, completed in 2015, it has four bedrooms, 2½ baths and an office, with a ribbed aluminum exterior and wood accents. It’s slightly less than 1,000 feet from the water. McConnell calls it “basically the most storm-proof house in all of New York City.” It’s also got a roof deck that reminds him why it was worth the effort, even if he knows his family might have to evacuate one day.
“There’s no other place in the city or in Brooklyn where you get the peace and the air and the light, and all the funkiness that is Red Hook,” he says, gazing at the Manhattan skyline. “So yeah, we really love it.”
Optimist on the Staten Island shore
Twenty-four Staten Islanders died during Sandy, more than any other borough. Spots on the eastern shore, including New Dorp Beach and Midland Beach, were whacked particularly hard. Some homes were never rebuilt. Hundreds of homeowners opted to sell their homes to the state, which then turned around and sold them at auction for a fraction of the price. Chris Reno saw potential there. He’s a general contractor who also works in real estate, so he’s not averse to a fixer-upper.
Reno attended an auction in 2016 and was able to buy a few lots, in cluding one on Garibaldi Avenue in New Dorp Beach for $285,000 that held a Sandy-ravaged beach bungalow. He decided to tear it down and a build a new home for himself. The main appeal for him — other than the beachy vibes — was a chance to build a taller house than normally allowed by neighborhood zoning laws; something the Department of City Planning allowed in exchange for eliminating flood-prone areas like a basement and first floor.
“It just gave you the opportunities to get a lot more house on any lot than you could almost anywhere else in Staten Island,” says Reno, 50.
His house on the site is 5,000 square feet across four floors with seven beds, five bathrooms and a roof deck; he rents a downstairs unit to his brother. It’s still in what the city lists as a high-risk flood zone, at about 1,400 feet from lower New York Bay.
But Reno says he is confident in its construction. He wishes he had bought more properties at auction; the market cooled in the year after the storm hit, but it’s hot again, he says. The average home price on Staten Island was $336,000 in 2013, according to Zillow.
Now it’s $508,000.
“A lot of these houses just floated off these foundations. That’s a virtual impossibility right now,” he says. “I don’t know if you could knock this house down with a direct hit from a hurricane.”
Buyers’ remorse in the Rockaways
Key West and Rae Hallett saw the flooding firsthand. Sandy-surged waters had invaded their car and chased them out of Rosedale, next to JFK Airport, where they shared a house with family. They eventually bought a home in Far Rockaway, Queens, about two years ago; they had friends in the neighborhood and had heard it was in the midst of a renaissance.
They already regret it.
“We are seeing little things that maybe [weren’t] disclosed before,” Hallett says. “And I don’t know if that’s something [the previous owner] was trying to hide, I just know these things are being uncovered to us now.”
The couple, who are both in their 40s, work in education and love the beach, says their real estate agent also did not talk to them about Sandy or about the potential of flooding in the future.
The attached-unit home with three bedrooms and two baths they bought for $310,000 is about two blocks from the ocean on one side and a block from the bay on the other, a narrow strip of the peninsula that was pinched by floodwaters during the storm. Its previous owner revealed the floor and cabinets had been replaced after it was flooded during Sandy. But, seven years later, lingering issues are popping up, including mold that is causing siding to fall off and a damaged roof that needed to be replaced for $13,000.
West and Hallett were also too late to take advantage of the Build It Back program: Their home is flush against another house, and that neighbor opted against raising the building on stilts after the storm. So the window for city aid passed, and the home still sits at ground level. They are disappointed their enclave of Far Rockaway has not seen the spark of revitalization that has remade the neighborhoods farther west in Rockaway Beach, which has seen a boon in businesses that cater to beachgoers and year-round surfers.
“To be honest, we are looking to move at some point sooner than later,” West says. “We haven’t acquired the peace that we are seeking out.”
Hallett agrees. “I think if another Sandy was to happen we probably would not rebuild,” she says. “There’s nothing here for our futures anyway.”