After Hurricane Sandy devastated their community in 2012, the residents of Oakwood Beach, Staten Island agreed to let the state buyout their homes in 2013 under the condition that their properties would “return to nature.”
Sandy killed 43 people. 24 of those deaths occurred on Staten Island, partially because of irresponsibly-located highways and low-lying coastal homes. Oakwood Beach had a handful of their own deaths, with residents trapped in flooded basements.
Instead of choosing to rebuild their homes, some Oakwood Beach residents opted to be part of a managed retreat. Their destroyed houses would be demolished; their land now part of a buffer zone that would serve as protection from storm surges. In return, the state would buyout their homes at pre-Sandy prices. Ocean Breeze, another low-lying neighborhood in Staten Island, also chose to be part of the program.
Seven years later, 300 of 320 homes in Oakwood Beach have been bought out, totaling more than $120 million. Some houses remain, empty and unlivable. Others are now empty plots, almost as if no one had ever lived there. All that remains are plate fragments here and there, a forgotten planter, and a haunting silence in the neighborhood. Now, groundhogs and geese roam freely, weaving between marshland brush and empty streets.
Geese cross a puddle and walk to one of the empty plots, which has a memorial grave.
Marsh plants grow, unfettered by development.
A single sandal sits on the empty beach next to broken glass and driftwood.
The shoreline of Oakwood Beach.
In the brush that separates the beach from the community, a grill rots alongside garbage.
Grass and marsh plants regrow where a home used to be.
This home, recently vacated, is government property.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.