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November 19, 2012 5:55 pm
On a recent afternoon, Coffey Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn was full of volunteers serving hot food, sorting donations and delivering supplies to residents stuck in public housing towers without power. Several utility trucks were parked nearby and workers in orange vests congregated on a street corner.
But what St John Frizell needed was a plumber.
“I’m looking for one right now to install the hot water heater sitting in my basement,” he said, sitting outside Fort Defiance, his bar and café on Van Brunt Street. Behind him, workers rinsed off sinks and kitchen equipment that was submerged in superstorm Sandy’s waters. “I have a bunch of calls out but can’t get anyone here.”
Fort Defiance got its electricity back a few days after the storm, but outages are still widespread in this south Brooklyn waterfront neighbourhood, where flood waters reached the ceilings of garden apartments and washed out stores, restaurants, bars and warehouses. Many buildings still need to be checked by an electrician before the power can be turned back on. But electricians, like plumbers and other contractors, are in short supply these days.
Mr Frizell hopes to reopen Fort Defiance quickly, even if not with full service, because he urgently needs to generate income. He says his suppliers are cutting him a break, but the bills are adding up.
“I’m blazing forward trying to get the doors open. I’m single-minded.” He estimates he lost at least $30,000 in inventory and equipment. “Loss of business is $25,000 a week, so that’s another $50,000 and counting.”
As Red Hook’s business owners grapple with the cost of Sandy’s damage, they are taking on the task of saving themselves – and each other – with a community-focused approach.
Fort Defiance is selling “junk bonds” – gift certificates priced at twice their face value. The bar’s website explains: “You send us $100, we send you $50 in gift certificates. Got it? Junk bonds – not worth what you pay for them! It’s a terrible deal for you, but we really need the money!”
At Red Hook Bait & Tackle further down Van Brunt, which saw $50,000 to $60,000 in damage, owners Barry O’Meara and Karin Weiner have raised more than $23,000 on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, to rebuild their bar.
The space has become a hub for the storm-ravaged neighbourhood, even as workers scramble to replace the ruined floor and fix the furnace and wiring. Outside, a folding table holds a bucket for donations.
“We own a local bar. All the local businesses were helped out by locals,” Mr O’Meara said. “Red Hook is a small-knit village at the end of the earth.”
Mr O’Meara, Ms Weiner and Mr Frizell have also joined other locals to set up a relief fund, Restore Red Hook, that has solicited $85,000 so far from individuals and companies. The group hopes to raise $250,000 for an initial disbursement of $5,000 for each of its members so they can cover short-term costs without incurring additional debt.
“The more [businesses] reopen, the better chances for all of us to succeed,” Mr Frizell said. But he also worries that some may find it hard to survive as costs pile up and foot traffic ebbs.
“The slowest time for business in Red Hook is January to March. We don’t have a lot of time to get that cushion back,” he said.
One business already uncertain about its future in the neighbourhood is Mile End, a deli that opened a production kitchen on the waterfront earlier this year.
Owner Noah Bernamoff said he lost $40,000 to $50,000 worth of perishables and has had his food production process set back by weeks. He does not yet know how much he will have to pay to replace damaged equipment, because the building still lacked electricity all of last week so he could not test the machinery.
He hopes his insurance will cover part of the losses from spoiled food, because the building lost power the night before the storm hit.
But Mile End has laid off 10 workers in Red Hook and shut down its catering business, which generated $20,000 to $25,000 in revenues a month, and has limited opening hours and menu options at its two restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“In truth, I don't know that we’re ever going to be able to get back to where we were before the storm,” Mr Bernamoff said. “I rely on income from the sale of foods and when you lose weeks of food that you’ve already paid for in terms of labour and overhead, we’re in a very tight spot economically.”
He said he wants to stay in the area, but wasn’t sure that would be possible.
“Ultimately our goal is to rebuild on the pier but there are a few factors out of our control that will play a large part in our decision.”
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