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Sandy swallows up New York community

A woman stands next to her house with a sign out front that reads 'We Are Staying' October 23, 2013 in Staten Island, New York
A woman stands next to her house with a sign out front that reads "We Are Staying" October 23, 2013 in Staten Island, New York

After Hurricane Sandy, many Americans ignored warnings about climate change to rebuild homes in flood zones.

But in one New York community, homeowners have decided to sell up, abandoning their land to nature as they escape to higher ground and peace of mind.

Sandy killed three people in Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, the neighborhood in New York City that, along with the Rockaways, was worst hit by the cyclone.

When New York governor Andrew Cuomo offered local homeowners the chance to sell, 298 people out of 300 jumped at the chance, even if they had lived there for decades.

For some it wasn't the first time they had seen flooding, and the price offered was attractive.

The first home to be demolished is next door to a house owned by Joe Tirone, a 56-year-old landlord and member of an organizing committee for the buy-back scheme.

From the property at 187 Fox Beach Avenue, he watched workers dismantle the home from the gas connection.

It is almost impossible to image the terror of Sandy on the pristine, glowing fall day a year later.

"My tenants were here. I made sure that they did evacuate because listening to the news it was pretty evident that it was gonna be pretty bad," he said.

"When they came back, there was an 11-feet waterline on the outside and seven-feet inside. They lost everything they owned," he added.

Tirone didn't have flood insurance, and the house has been shut ever since, uninhabitable.

When he started looking around for help, he found out about Cuomo's scheme to buy up coastal areas to turn them back into wetlands and build no new houses.

"They want this area to act as a buffer zone to protect the inland portion," said Tirone.

Joe Tirone, member of the Fox Beach Avenue Buyout Committee, poses in front of his house October 23, 2013 in Staten Island, New York
Joe Tirone, member of the Fox Beach Avenue Buyout Committee, poses in front of his house October 23, 2013 in Staten Island, New York

When they gave their list to the governor, 135 out of 185 had signed up. When Cuomo upped the price by an extra 10 percent on top of the Fox Beach Avenue buildings' pre-storm value, the number rose to 184.

"That really made the people participate," said Tirone.

Another attraction was that it benefitted home owners and not investors.

"Actually, there are very few rentals here. People have been here for decades. Pat, who lives across the street, she grew up here, she moved when she was five years old. She has lived here for 50 years."

A handful of owners have refused, but they are rare.

Angela Montalto lost her father Leonard, who had lived all his life in Oakwood Beach, to Sandy.

"To see the damage that was caused is something that will stick with me forever," she told AFP.

"To lose a parent and our house in one fell swoop is something that I wouldn't wish on anyone."

She believes the community is the perfect candidate for the buy-out, not least because the property losses were beyond everyone's wildest imaginations.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a similar scheme. On October 10, he announced the first sale in another neighborhood south of Staten Island.

After tearing through the Caribbean, Sandy slammed into the East Coast of the United States making landfall on the evening of October 29, racking up at least $60 billion in damage.

More than 200 people were killed, 44 of them in New York City alone.

Cuomo, who often speaks out against climate change, put aside $400 million for the buy-back scheme.

"Many of them are saying I don't want to have to do it again. I'd rather buy out the parcel and move on," the governor said in January.

"There are some parcels that Mother Nature owns. She may only visit once every few years, but she owns the parcel and when she comes to visit, she visits."

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