Updated Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 10:46 PM
NEW YORK — New York City is moving to demolish hundreds of homes in the neighborhoods hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, after a grim assessment of the storm-ravaged coast revealed 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 also will be cleared.
The Buildings Department is still inspecting nearly 500 other damaged structures, some of which could be razed, according to the commissioner, Robert LiMandri.
LiMandri, in an interview, said the city had not undertaken such a broad reshaping of its neighborhoods in decades.
"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 upfront 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 of the houses that are being torn down were built more than a half-century ago as summer bungalows, then winterized and expanded. Current building codes likely would prohibit reconstruction of similar homes.
The Buildings Department expects to have a more precise assessment soon of how many buildings must be razed.
And then there is the emotional toll. Many of the homes set to be knocked down are in tight-knit working- and middle-class neighborhoods, where the homes 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, then adding: "I mean, look, a lot of these are people's homes that, probably, they may have even grown up in it, and it was their father's house. I mean, 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 neighborhoods, trying to track down those affected through their friends and neighbors and urging them to go to one of the six recovery centers set up by the city and to register their damaged homes by calling 311.
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.
Eric Ulrich, a Republican city councilman from Queens who represents Breezy Point, Belle Harbor, Broad Channel and some of the other affected neighborhoods, said he had not been notified of the demolitions, but that the forced destruction of people's homes would come as a terrible shock.
"My constituents have been through so much, and they are just so distraught, and if that were to happen and if they were told that the home that they grew up in or they bought has to be taken against their will, it's just devastating news," he 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 pummeled 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 backhoe or bulldozer that looks like a set of steel dinosaur jaws and takes bites out of buildings.
In the days after the storm, LiMandri's staff, with the aid of outside engineers and architects, fanned out to examine sections of the city that suffered water damage and other structural deterioration as a result of the flooding. They declared 891 buildings unsafe to enter, affixing red tags to the structures to signal the potential danger to owners and residents.
The wholesale demolition of damaged buildings after natural disasters is not uncommon, and while the commissioner called the razing of hundreds of homes unprecedented for New York City, thousands were torn down in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. LiMandri said his staff had been in contact with officials there to learn from their experience.
LiMandri said he did not believe any of the buildings set to be demolished were multiunit apartment buildings and, while there might be a small number of houses razed in the Bronx, none were likely to be torn down in Manhattan.
The damaged houses — in neighborhoods like Breezy Point, Belle Harbor and Rockaway Beach in Queens, South Beach, Midland Beach and Fox Beach on Staten Island and Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn — all have two things in common: They were older homes, and they were close to the water.
"Some of these neighborhoods have really been hit hard, and as you walk around, you realize that the newer buildings that have newer codes, that are built to newer codes, they have withstood; although they have water damage, they're still standing," LiMandri said. "And they can be right next to something that was built in the '20s, which is not there anymore or essentially gone."
MARK LENNIHAN / AP
A grappler works in the Rockaway section of Queens earlier this week. The demolition of hundreds of longtime family homes is something New York City hasn't seen before.