Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy destroyed his home, Joe Monte stood up at a meeting of Staten Island storm survivors and implored them to give up on any hopes of rebuilding. "I personally don't want no bleach, no sheetrock, that's not what we're here for," he said. "That area was meant for doing what it did a hundred years ago: to take water."
Monte was talking about Oakwood Beach, a neighborhood that sustained terrible damage in the storm, and the meeting marked the first attempt by Monte and other residents to rally their neighbors around the idea of getting the government to pay pre-market value for their destroyed and damaged houses.
Some in the crowd were skeptical that the government would deliver that help, but on Monday, The New York Times reported that Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the idea.
Monte said he wasn't suprised. "There's nothing else you can do down there," he said. The neighborhood was built on marshland and has flooded repeatedly over the years. "Nature's taking it back," Monte said.
According to The New York Times, Cuomo would be willing to spend as much as $400 million to purchase homes destroyed by Sandy throughout the state. If the federal government approves of the plan, the homes would then be demolished and the land would revert back to undeveloped coastline.
Over the last 20 years, as smaller storms have repeatedly battered the homes of Oakwood Beach, residents have complained that officials have been slow to respond. For decades, the Army Corps of Engineers has been researching a long-term solution for the neighborhood and other parts of the Staten Island waterfront, but the study has proceeded in fits and starts, with federal funding occasionally drying up.
Meantime, residents like Monte have come to believe that the only solution is getting out. "If a storm comes between now and whenever, it could be worse than it was with Sandy," he said.
Monte, who owned a construction company for two decades, spent 11 years renovating his Oakwood Beach home, which he described as an investment for his retirement.
Yet unlike some residents, he expressed no ambivalence about the prospect of leaving. "I can't stand looking at the place," he said. "I avoid it as much as possible."
What worries Monte is the timing of the government's plan. If the buyout doesn't happen soon, he said, he'll be hard-pressed to shoulder the double burden of the mortgage on the house that he fled and the rent at the Brooklyn apartment where he and his family took refuge.
"How do you pay mortgage and pay rent at the same time?" he said. "If they aren't wrapped in six months to a year at most, do we fall into another foreclosure situation like we had three or four years ago? What do we do here?"
Another Oakwood Beach resident, Pedro Correa, who rode out the storm on a floating roof, echoed Monte's concerns about timing. "There's still a long road," he said. "The federal government has to approve the plan. There's nothing set in stone."
At the meeting back in November, Correa was one of the skeptics who expressed doubt that the government would come to the neighborhood's rescue, and he still has trouble believing the government will make good on such an expensive proposal.
"I did the math," he said. "There are 161 houses in the neighborhood. It comes out to $50 million total. I don't feel confident they're going to pay $50 million."
Unlike Monte, Correa found himself returning again and again to the ruins of his home, which the storm swept into marsh. For a while he entertained the possibility that he could somehow rebuild it. But he gave up that dream many weeks ago, and on Friday, workers built a road through the marsh and pulled out the last of the remains.
"I think that was a big closure for us," he said. "There's nothing to go back to now. I can't put on waders and go through the stuff. It's over now."