Politicians in New York and New Jersey are not known for keeping quiet about what they think. On the contrary. Pols in the Garden and Empire states often earn such epithets as “brash,” “outspoken,” and “candid.” Governor Chris Christie has proudly referred to himself as “this loud guy from New Jersey.” In a region where everybody has an opinion and is more than willing to run his mouth about it, that’s not an insult. It’s a job requirement.
In the months since Sandy hit the tristate area, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has been right out there sounding off with the best of them. Immediately after the storm hit, he started talking about the role climate change played in the disaster with a frankness nearly unprecedented for a sitting elected official. “I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable,” said Cuomo then.
You got a problem with that?
Now the New York governor is again stirring the pot with blunt statements about the post-Sandy recovery. In an interview with the Daily News, Cuomo said this about residents of flood-prone areas returning to their homes: “At one point, you have to say maybe Mother Nature doesn’t want you here. Maybe she’s trying to tell you something.”
Cuomo is proposing that New York take some of the money from the $50.7 billion Sandy relief bill the Congress is considering and use it to buy out property owners in the hardest-hit coastal regions. The land, Cuomo said, would then be left undeveloped, possibly to be incorporated into parks.
From the Daily News:
Cuomo said he hopes more Sandy victims will choose to have the state buy them out rather than rebuild in areas that are at risk of future storm damage.
It would relieve the government of having to pay to rebuild the same houses multiple times.
“You have to be sensitive,” he said. “I’m not saying anybody should sell, but you should think about it. And if you want to sell, we’ll have an option.”
The state will offer “fair market” appraisals of people’s properties that he expects will be “on the generous side.”
While this might be Cuomo’s version of being “sensitive,” some Rockaways residents were fighting mad about his statements. On the Facebook page of community group Rockaway Emergency Plan, one woman wrote this [sic]:
I just want to thank all branches of our government for making me believe you're all a bunch of out for yourselves hypocrites. So homeowners should sell at a huge loss so the state can re-build the rockaways into a luxury neighborhood and make billions in profits, instead of assisting current lifelong or new Rockaway loving residents in rebuilding by providing a better boardwalk, government assitance in lifting existing homes and landfilling the acres of beach front land?
Another had this to say:
You know, I've never heard anyone tell the people on the outer banks or on the coast of florida or maybe NEW ORLEANS to move! These storms happen there all the time! Go to helll.
Those were some of the more polite responses.
Not everyone is digging in their heels. As Dana Rubenstein of Capital New York reported earlier this month, many longtime residents of the Fox Beach neighborhood of Staten Island are eager to leave the low-lying land and let it return to its natural marshy state:
Today, residents are banding together in an effort to convince the government that their neighborhood should go away. The people of Fox Beach—more than 60 percent of them, according to one homeowner's count—want a buy-out.
"If they tell people, 'Listen, you’re on your own, we’re not helping you, we’re not buying you out,' you’re gonna see more deaths here,” said Neil Filipowicz, who, after the hurricane, found the bodies of his brother and nephew, embracing, in the basement of their Fox Beach home. "I guarantee it."
But New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and New Jersey’s Christie have been relentlessly chanting the “rebuild” mantra. While Christie is adopting new FEMA maps that will require stricter guidelines for reconstruction in flood zones, he maintains there are “very few places” New Jerseyans won’t be able to rebuild. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has so far put his emphasis on rebuilding, and, according to Capital New York, hasn’t yet come out strongly one way or the other on buyouts.
Buying out homeowners and rehabilitating coastal areas as natural buffer zones would make a lot of sense if you look at the history of the human relationship with the sea. As historian John R. Gillis, author of The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, told me a few days after Sandy, “"We’ve built right up to the edge in the most foolish way. The whole coast is now an extended suburb…. The sensible long-term thing is to think in terms of retreat."
There would be serious short-term consequences to such a retreat, in the form of lost property taxes. But property values have been so depressed in the wake of the storm that many communities will have to deal with that hit anyway – or are doing so already.
We all knew, when the extent of the storm’s damage became clear, that there were going to be some tough choices ahead. Cuomo’s willingness to talk in plain English about the new reality his state faces is only a beginning. But at least it's an honest one.
Top image: Governor Cuomo inspects water flooding the Battery Tunnel in Manhattan as Hurricane Sandy made its approach in New York. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)