Freak Show

Nightmare on Coney Island After Sandy Knocks Historic Area to its Knees

New York’s iconic neighborhood is a disaster zone, as shattered residents try to pick up the pieces—while fighting off looters. Paula Szuchman reports from Sandy’s wake.

Alice Proujansky

You know things are bad when Chernobyl is your reference point.

“This is bad, but I believe Chernobyl was worse,” said Irene Sarafanov of the devastation Superstorm Sandy left in its wake after passing through her gated seaside community at the western tip of Coney Island, Brooklyn.

Sarafanov grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, some 40 miles from the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. On Wednesday, she was digging out from one of the worst natural disasters in New York history, taking care of a neighbor who had lost her home, and joking about having lost her extensive shoe collection when the waves came crashing into her basement. “We’re healthy. We’re alive,” said Sarafanov, looking down at her mud-caked galoshes and smiling.

It was a sentiment echoed by other residents of Sea Gate, a tight-knit community of about 800 single-family homes that was reduced to ruins by a storm more powerful than anyone here has ever witnessed. The last time Coney Island had flooding this bad was in the late 1820s—and even then, there wasn’t this much water.

“I’m homeless,” said Christa Cirl, who has lived in Sea Gate for 14 years and returned from an evacuation center Wednesday afternoon to find her house destroyed. Teary and shaking, Cirl said the minute she passed through the gate, “it was like World War III.” She lives alone, cell phone service is non-existent, and the only clothes she now has are packed into one small suitcase.

A few doors down, Jeff Nier was trying to figure out how to untangle the three-car pile-up in his driveway. The waves carried two cars from across the street and slammed them down onto his Ford Explorer. The ranch house opposite him was flattened. Nier, a roofer and a fishing boat captain, has lived in Sea Gate for 30 years and says he has never seen a storm like Sandy. But he’s not going anywhere. “I love being by the water.”

All along Atlantic Avenue, people were pumping water out of their basements, rinsing off muddy furniture, and firing up generators. Some were huddled together shaking their heads. Others just looked at the ocean in a daze. The smell of mold and mildew was pervasive.

A similar scene played out elsewhere in Coney Island, one of New York City’s most iconic neighborhoods, a place of hot-dog-eating contests and roller coasters, but also notorious housing projects and high crime rates.

Sandy knocked out power here for the indefinite future, and flooded everything from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs to the Stillwell Avenue subway stop and the Timbuktu Barber Shop on Mermaid Avenue. It spared the historic Cyclone roller coaster, but inundated the New York Aquarium, where staff stayed through the night and kept watch over a baby walrus. Street signs were dangling from light posts, and even two days after the storm, stranded residents of a senior citizens’ home had yet to be evacuated. Sand and mud caked the streets, some of which were eerily quiet. Looting here began in earnest Tuesday morning, with roving gangs breaking into liquor stores, banks, pharmacies, and even a Rent-A-Center, where thieves were reportedly running out with flat-screen TVs.

“I saw people with a bunch of shopping carts filled with stuff, just walking down the sidewalk,” said Fresnel Jajoute, a barber at Timbuktu who lost about $1,000 worth of his equipment, including his chair and clippers. “I’m like, ‘you people have no dignity!’” Jajoute lives in Coney Island and says he spent Tuesday night at home, keeping an eye on his blackened street. “You couldn’t see a foot in front of you. It was terrifying. It was chaos out here. I’m staying at my brother’s house tonight.”

David Robertson and Preston Wright are also barbers at Timbuktu, and by Wednesday at noon, they had piled every item from the shop—red barber seats, sinks, hair dryers—onto the sidewalk. Everything was garbage. “It’s like someone knocked the wind out of you,” said Wright, mop in hand. “This is your livelihood. We didn’t expect it to be like this.”

Neither did Ron Troyano, who has been sleeping in his car since his liquor store was looted in broad daylight on Tuesday. “We had five feet of water in here. Once it went down, they forced the gate open, broke right through the glass door and started looting,” said Troyano, who has owned Mermaid Discount Wine & Liquor for 30 years. When his son came in later that day, he found the culprits still in the shop, drinking. “They ran to the back of the store, climbed onto the roof and escaped that way,” said Troyano, who estimates the thieves took about $5,000 worth of liquor. “The cops didn’t do anything.” So he’s keeping lookout himself, doing night-watch shifts with his son in their cars until the electricity comes back on.

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By Wednesday, a mobile command center had been set up in the boarded-up Rent-A-Center parking lot, with at least 200 cops from all over the city being dispatched to various blocks around Coney Island. Generator-operator floodlights were being positioned in preparation for another night—Halloween night—without power.

They would be of little use, though, to Ahmad Tokhi. He opened his Popeyes franchise on Surf Avenue in May. On Wednesday, the kitchen floors were covered in an inch-thick coating of shortening that had floated out from the fryers when the water rushed in. Benches were knocked over, chicken boxes scattered across the floor. Tokhi estimates he’s lost about $25,000 in food alone. The $40,000 he spent on his cash registers—gone. “This was my life,” said Tokhi, who emigrated here thirty years ago from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Like other home and business owners here, he doesn’t have flood insurance. It’s either too expensive or unavailable.

A similar fate met Nathan’s Famous a few blocks down on Surf. On Wednesday, a couple of cashiers were drinking coffee and figuring out what to do with the cash registers, which were ruined. The famed Boardwalk fared much better, thanks in part to its elevation. There was little damage at Paul’s Daughter, a clam bar that’s been serving customers for 43 years, other than a fallen statue of a woman holding a hamburger. Friends of the owner managed to prop it back up on the roof to the cheers of the guys below. Billy Burke, who has been working the counter “on and off” for 30 years, said Wednesday was supposed to be the official last day in business, “but, oh well.”

Coney Island U.S.A., a non-profit that runs the Coney Island Museum, the annual Mermaid Parade and the Sideshow, also had to curtail its Halloween festivities—“Creep Show at the Freak Show”—when Sandy hit. Executive Director Dick Zigun says he hasn’t begun to tally the losses, but expects they will be immense, since the museum was filled chest-high with water. Zigun’s apartment is destroyed, his truck totaled. “It’s weird waking up to this reality.”

Though Coney Island was in the Zone A mandatory evacuation area, Zigun, like many others, decided to stay put, figuring it wouldn’t be so bad. He lit candles when the lights went out, but when the water started rushing in, he escaped upstairs to his friends on the 4th floor. “It was a bad judgment call. I should have left like my wife did. The creepiest thing is when the water reaches a certain level, it shorts out the door bells and all the door bells start going off, so it’s like there’s a phantom sea captain ringing your bell. It was creepy.”

Back in Sea Gate, Jeff Nier, his wife and his three Siberian Samoyeds were prepared for a long night. “Anyone comes into my house at night,” said Nier, pausing, looking this reporter dead in the eye, “let’s just say, I take no prisoners.”