New York city prepares to raze 200 storm-damaged homes

Houses marked as unsafe on Staten Island, in Queens and Brooklyn are in addition to similar number destroyed when Hurricane Sandy hit coast

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 3:39am

New York city is moving to demolish hundreds of homes in the neighbourhoods hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, after a grim assessment of the storm-ravaged coast revealed that many structures were so damaged they pose a danger to public safety and other buildings nearby.

About 200 homes will be bulldozed in the coming days, almost all of them one- and two-family houses on Staten Island, in Queens and Brooklyn. That is in addition to 200 houses that are already partially or completely burned down, washed away or otherwise damaged; those sites will also be cleared.

The Buildings Department is still inspecting nearly 500 other damaged structures, some of which could also be razed, according to the commissioner, Robert LiMandri.

LiMandri, in an interview late last week, said neither he nor his staff could recall the city ever undertaking this kind of broad reshaping of its neighbourhoods.

"We've never had this scale before," LiMandri said. "This is what New Yorkers have read about in many other places and have never seen. So it is definitely unprecedented. And by the same token, when you walk around in these communities, people are scared and worried, and we're trying to make every effort to be up front and share with them what they need to do."

No decisions have been made about rebuilding in the storm-battered areas - a complicated question that would involve not only homeowners, but also insurers and officials in the state, local and federal governments.

Some houses that are being torn down were built more than a half-century ago as summer chalets, then made winter-proof and extended. Current building codes would likely prohibit reconstruction of similar homes.

And then there is the emotional toll. Many of the homes set to be knocked down are in tight-knit working- and middle-class neighbourhoods, where they are often handed down from generation to generation.

"Listen, we want public safety, and we have to move on, but you have to give some people …" LiMandri said, pausing before adding: "Look, a lot of these are people's homes that they may have even grown up in, and it was their father's house. That's the kind of communities we're talking about."

One challenge facing the department is reaching owners of the homes facing demolition. Many are now living elsewhere - with friends or family or in hotels or shelters - and are barred from entering the houses because they are unsafe.

The city is trying to proceed with sensitivity, with Buildings Department staff members walking the streets in these neighbourhoods, trying to track down those affected through their friends and neighbours and urging them to go to one of the six recovery centres set up by the city and to register their damaged homes by calling the city's information hotline.

But, in some cases, where the danger is imminent, the department will issue an emergency declaration to bulldoze the buildings, even if the owners have not been contacted.

"This is not easy in this case because of all these displaced people, but we're going to do the best we can. But we may have to move on it if we can't find them," LiMandri said.

Buildings Department employees were at work over the weekend issuing more demolition orders. Among the buildings razed last week was a home in Broad Channel, Queens, that was so pummelled by Hurricane Sandy that it was left leaning at a 30-degree angle.

Two houses in other parts of the Rockaways were also demolished in recent days, with a grappler - a huge attachment affixed to a bulldozer that looks like a set of steel jaws and takes bites out of buildings.

In the days after the storm, LiMandri's staff, with the aid of outside engineers and architects, checked more than 80,000 buildings and declared 891 unsafe to enter.