The Ruins of Staten Island

Whitney Light
December 13, 2012

When Hurricane Sandy swept over the shores of Staten Island, hundreds of homes flooded and were destroyed to a degree most residents never expected. Some, ignoring alerts to evacuate based on experience of past storms less severe, even lost their lives; city officials counted roughly half of New York’s death toll of 48 (though residents claim the figure to be much higher) on Staten Island.

Among the hardest hit neighborhoods were New Dorp and Oakwood, where these photographs were taken. Blocks of houses filled with water and many crumpled from the pressure of fast-rising waters. Residents who did not evacuate spent hours stranded in second floors, attics and even tree branches. In the days after the storm, homes on Kissam Avenue in Oakwood hit the news as symbols of the storm’s most devastating effects—whole houses ripped from their foundations and deposited tens of yards away in adjacent marshlands.

In the weeks after the storm, residents returned to salvage belongings and clean-up a place that is a troubling shadow of the quaint and pleasant beach town-like community it once was, and the traces of that community are what I photographed. Through conversations with residents, I learned that the area was a tight-knit neighborhood of families (sometimes three generations living within a few blocks of each other) and of middle-class people who felt lucky to be living in a quiet pocket close to nature and recreation unusual for New York City. The idyllic aspects of the neighborhood were apparent through November, which yielded many days of sun and sea breezes. Through the damage were hints of local enjoyments: boating and beachfront delis, barbecues and swimming pools, garden gnomes and hobby cars.

Now, however, the storm has exposed the neighborhood’s fragility and the vulnerability of its seaside location. Like Dorothy’s Kansas,  this seemingly ideal place has been brutally turned upside down. And unlike in fairytales, many residents of New Dorp and Oakwood will not return home. Dozens of houses are condemned and empty, while those whose homes were spared wonder whether it is safe or wise to rebuild here.

By the end of November, some residents had not yet heard from their insurance agencies or FEMA and waited in limbo for direction on whether to abandon or proceed on repairs. The photographs try to capture the stasis of the situation, as well as a sense of how the storm has eroded the fabric of life here. The result is a document of a ruin and a portrait of humanity overwhelmed by nature.

 

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