Small Businesses Struggle to Survive After Sandy’s Wrath

Most of New York is back to its normal routine, but many Lower Manhattan businesses closest to the river are barely hanging on, trying to clean up and start running again before they run out of money. Eliza Shapiro reports.

Sherry Delamarter fought back tears as she entered yet another ruined restaurant by the East River in Lower Manhattan, a neighborhood which was hit with seven feet of floodwater when Hurricane Sandy made landfall Oct. 29. Delamarter’s own restaurant, Cowgirl Sea-Horse, was on Front Street, and was one of the casualties.

Cowgirl Sea-Horse was “just beginning to break even and now this happened,” Delamarter said while on a Tuesday morning tour of the destruction Sandy had wrought on small business throughout Zone A—the area closest to the water.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and Karen Mills, the administrator of the Small Business Association (SBA), were also there, as were reporters and local small-business owners. As the group made its way through the South Street Seaport, which sits on the bank of the East River, they stopped at yet another destroyed business, its walls gutted and its electrical wires exposed.

“We’re applying for every loan that there is, but we don’t have any money,” Delamarter said. “We only had $10,000 in the bank when Sandy hit.”

The day after the superstorm made landfall, Delamarter said, her staff walked from their homes in Manhattan and Brooklyn to report to work and help begin the cleanup. “We’re a loyal family,” she said. “My waiters marry my busboys.”

While most of New York City has returned to its pre-Sandy routines, life in many pockets of low-lying areas remains ground to a halt nearly a month later.

Most businesses on the blocks near the water are boarded up, and generators are still pumping water out of some of the worst-hit storefronts. Foot traffic on Tuesday consisted mostly of construction and clean-up crews in white zip-up suits.

At Pasanella and Sons Vintners, a wine shop on South Street that reopened on Tuesday morning, politicians gathered to reassure the community that the federal government was on their side.

“Help is indeed on the way,” said Stringer, who had been planning to run for mayor of New York City until dropping out on Nov. 18. Stringer told the crowd that he had spoken to President Obama after the storm about the concerns of lower Manhattan.

Nadler, a congressman whose district includes lower Manhattan, echoed Stringer’s sentiments. “We have a very sensitive federal government,” Nadler said. “FEMA and SBA are functioning properly. They have the resources and know-how.”

Daniel Squadron, a state senator whose district includes lower Manhattan, said, “The one message we want to send to Washington is Manhattan is very big but also very small. We’ve had this crisis hit both the biggest buildings and the smallest shoestring mom and pop stores.”

The SBA’s Karen Mills told the crowd about permanent counseling centers the SBA established in the first days after the storm, to help small business owners get back on their feet in lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Far Rockaway, and Long Island.

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“If you have physical damage, don’t wait for insurance,” Mills said. The SBA has already approved $20 million in loans for local small businesses, she said. The typical wait time for processing loans is about 10 days, while the overload of insurance claims after Sandy means that turnaround on a claim can be much slower.

Dean Balsamini, the Director at the Staten Island Small Business Development Center, said that the process of helping independent businesses in Staten Island is well underway. “We had a business recovery center up and running by Nov. 8,” he said, adding that the center hadn’t turned down a loan application yet. “It’s going exceptionally well,” he said.

A few storefronts down, Tehela, the owner of Il Brigante, an Italian restaurant on Front Street, walked around her restaurant, which was destroyed in the storm and is now being completely renovated. “I don’t even know where the bathroom was,” she said, shaking her head.

“Other businesses are beginning to open but our landlord says they won’t turn our power on,” said Tehela, who declined to give her last name. “We’re just being told to wait it out.”

After weeks of cleaning, Cowgirl Sea-Horse was finally able to open its bar last week. “Our margarita machine was saved, miraculously,” Delamarter said. “We don’t have any glassware yet so we served drinks in plastic cups.” Delamarter expects it will be weeks or longer until the restaurant can serve food again.

But things are at least a little better than they were.

For the first few days after the storm, Delamarter said, “every night I spent the day cleaning the restaurant, I walked with a flashlight to my apartment, lit a candle, and prayed.”