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“People will forever have second thoughts about that, and there are clearly multiple sides of the story,” said Jack Suben, a homeowner and board member who is now renting in Midwood after his house was washed away by the hurricane. “I would say that, by virtue of the fact that we are a gated community, it would not have been appropriate to open up our beaches.”
According to the Army Corps, the 1990s reinforcement project did its job elsewhere on the peninsula. “Yes, the Coney Island peninsula was impacted by the storm, but it would have been a great deal worse had the project never been constructed,” said Chris Gardiner, an Army Corps spokesman. The reinforcement project stopped the surge coming from the ocean, Gardiner said. “That’s why the boardwalk is still there.”
While the project helped most of Coney Island weather Sandy, it may have actually hurt Sea Gate. In the years after the project, the Army Corp’s work created massive erosion on Sea Gate’s end of the beach. The Army Corps promised to build groins on Sea Gate’s beach to stop that erosion, making an exception to its rule of not working on private beaches because, corps officials say, the project will mostly serve to reinforce their work elsewhere on the peninsula. The Army Corps had not gotten around to building the groins yet when Sandy struck.
“Had the beach erosion project been completed before Sandy… I would absolutely have to state that the damage would have been less,” said Suben, who works as an architect.
The Army Corps is slated to start that project in early 2014. It will provide some new protection to Sea Gate, but won’t stop the next flood.
Weeks after the storm, Sea Gate’s administrative offices moved to a trailer with a banner on the side reading “IT CAN BE DONE.” Behind Dembitzer’s desk is a painting of the neighborhood, a small strip of houses with the Verrazano Narrows bridge in the background and a yacht just offshore. Next to the desk are heavy steel samples for a notional new seawall.
The absence of protection along the shore hasn’t kept most Sea Gate families from returning home. Along the water, however, the neighborhood is a ghost town. On the inland side of Atlantic Avenue, homes look like they did the day before the hurricane. On the ocean side, most homes are for sale. A cold-calling real estate agent knocked on one door with no “For Sale” sign up yet.
The real estate listing aggregation site Trulia shows 79 homes on the market in Sea Gate. If accurate, that would comprise nearly a tenth of the properties in the neighborhood.
At the end of Beach 49th Street there’s a scrubby, sandy expanse that was a playground before the hurricane. “We had grass here, we had a kiddie park,” Dembitzer said, standing on the windy point. A piece of green metal poked through the sand; Dembitzer said it was part of an old swing set, now buried. Where the park once met the water, the waves splash against a tangle of cement and rebar, the remains of the old bulkhead.