Stand on Surf Avenue and there’s little evidence that in October 2012, a nearly 14-foot storm tide broke across the Coney Island boardwalk, merging with water from Gravesend Bay and Coney Island Creek, and violently surged across the fragile peninsula from all three sides. Hurricane Sandy’s life-threatening storm sent cars floating down dark, flooded streets and left thousands of residents without light, water, or heat. It left others marooned on upper floors of apartment houses and public housing towers in the neighborhood’s West End. In neighborhoods as close as Bensonhurst, it was business as usual, almost as though there’d been no hurricane. But in Coney Island in the hours and days after, people resorted to eating food tainted by sea water and collected water from hydrants, as sinkholes big enough to crawl through opened from one end of the block to the other.
Six years after the storm killed 43 New Yorkers, and caused $19 billion worth of damage to the city, the boardwalk attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to its glittering amusement park featuring log flumes, roller coasters, and high-end restaurants. But for residents of the area, it’s a different story. The still-glacial pace of repair in Coney Island has meant many New York City Housing Authority buildings are still in bad shape, while some residents are only now moving back to homes rebuilt by a troubled federally funded reconstruction program. It’s the gleaming mixed-use buildings full of market rate apartments breaking ground on Surf Avenue, and others rising near Sea Gate at Coney’s western tip, that alarm advocates, city planners and locals. They say Coney’s dramatic building boom, triggered by a Bloomberg-era 2009 rezoning, but slowed by Sandy recovery, suggests a dangerous amnesia about how the storm devastated Coney. And a denial about the threat that rising seas and bigger, more dangerous storms caused by climate change pose to this former barrier island.