Steve Tarpin remembers the night that Hurricane Sandy destroyed his beloved Red Hook bakery, Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies. “By 6 p.m. the water was lapping up at my feet,” he recalls. “And we were still three hours away from high tide… I came back around 2:30 a.m., and had to drive through a fair bit of water. Took a quick look and realized there was absolutely nothing I could do. Came back in the morning, we were about three feet underwater.”
The cost of ruined food alone ran close to $50,000. During the first day of cleanup, people from the community and local bars helped clear away the junk that was piled everywhere. Within hours, they filled up several dumpsters. The next group of volunteers, from Restore Red Hook, swept and scrubbed. “We had baking trays that were filled with this buttery, greasy schmutz,” Tarpin remarks. The crew was helpful (“they did in hours what would take us 4, 5 days, or weeks”) and Tarpin was able to save most of his electric equipment, but because of the loss of power, the store couldn’t reopen for Thanksgiving, its busiest time.
A year later, the new location of Steve’s is up and running, just 200 yards from the old one — but the business is still struggling to recover. And it isn’t the only one. As Tarpin speaks, Carlos De Santos steps into the pie shop. His business, Brooklyn Motor Works, was the largest aftermarket motorcycle parts shop in New York until Sandy destroyed everything, forcing him to move his 8,000-square-foot specialty shop to a 2,400-square-foot temporary space. “It’s a big downgrade,” De Santos says. “We lost a lot of critical equipment. Before we offered very, very high-end tuning and customized building, now it’s just maintenance and repair.”
De Santos estimates his losses at $390,000, yet he hasn’t received a cent in federal aid, grant or loans. “The reality is, as small business owners we were hung out to dry,” he argues vehemently, “New York City did not step up. New York City did not offer funding to small businesses, did not help us rebuild.” He submitted a 390-page-long application (“it looks like a textbook!”) to the city for a loan and was put through six months of interviews and questionnaires, only to be turned down because his credit “was not good enough.”
Tarpin adds, “You have to register with FEMA, then you have a FEMA number, they send you to SBA. All SBA did was blow smoke up our asses.”
“Nothing, not a fucking thing,” De Santos complains loudly. “Yeah, not even a high five, sorry man. It’s just a lot of lip service, a lot of bullshit.”
Walk around the Red Hook waterfront and talk to other business owners, and similar grievances surface. Plenty of businesses did not qualify for federal loans; those businesses that did are struggling to meet payment deadlines.
Susan Saunders runs NYPG, a printing company, with her husband. Last August was the company’s 10th anniversary. “Built this up from 150-squate-foot and one press to 7,500-square-feet and all this equipment,” says Saunders, whose voice has a tired edge to it. “All the equipment was bought in cash, we were debt free. It took us ten years.” She pronounces “years” like “yee-ars,” which makes her sound surprised, as if she cannot believe Sandy took everything from her, and that she has to start it all over again. Saunders was one of the lucky ones who did get a SBA loan. They applied for aid immediately after the storm took place, but did not see any money until March. New machines arrived in May. In those seven months that the company was closed down, clients went somewhere else. Saunders confesses that one of the biggest challenges now is to persuade those clients to come back.
Like Saunders, Ben Schneider, co-owner of The Good Fork, an Italian-French bistro with Asian influences, received a loan (from the city, not federal). The eight-year-old restaurant, a neighborhood favorite, lost about $60,000 in equipment and supplies. Water reached near table-top height, and the basement, dining room and garden were flooded. “Everything was pretty messed up — we lost a lot of food, a lot of equipment,” Schneider states matter-of-factly. The restaurant reopened on Jan. 1, two months after the storm. He attributes the restaurant’s speedy recovery to hard work, “We had volunteers. I was here every day, twenty hours.” He admits that while the $25,000 loan helped initially, he is feeling the pressure to pay back the money. “You know, it’s six months [grace period]. And now it’s a lot of money each month.”
Businesses that didn’t receive loans must absorb their losses and plow on. Billy Durney, owner and pit master of Hometown Bar-B-Que, had just signed the lease in September and started building when Sandy hit. In total, he lost about $50,000 in construction and kitchen equipment. Durney didn’t qualify for any city, state or federal funding because he didn’t have tax returns from last year. He took the loss, losing several investors in the process, and did not open until nearly a year later on Sept. 12.
Similarly, the much loved waterfront bluegrass and jazz bar, Sunny’s, did not qualify for a small business loan. It took 11 months to come back and reopened on Aug. 29, the 79th birthday of the owner Sunny Balzano. Tall, thin as a pencil, and soft-spoken, Balzano laments that Sandy razed his bar. “Whatever it is making this place run – electronics, mechanics, everything was destroyed.” Damages ran close to $150,000 and he could not have saved his bar had it not been for private donations and fundraisers, which drew $100,000.
Nearly a year later, the Sandy effect is still deeply felt. The superstorm helped put Red Hook on the map, so that more people are aware of it. Ferries and water taxis carrying visitors from Wall Street’s Pier 11 to Van Brunt Street help generate foot traffic for businesses near the waterfront. But tourists won’t do De Santos’s motorcycle business any good. He hopes that if he survives this winter, he will have a chance next year to get his business back on track.
Pie maker Tarpin derides the media for failing to point out that “in spite of the lack of help, we managed to crawl back.” He says the only group that did any good was Restore Red Hook, a local group that raised funds to help small local businesses. He received $3,000. “It wasn’t a whole lot, but it paid some bills.”
Despite the hardship, business owners are optimistic about the community. De Santos says he couldn’t have survived without the help of his friends and neighbors. Schneider remarks that “the community was amazing” — and got even stronger after Sandy.
“The community was great to start,” explains Durney in his gruff, bear-like voice, “But Sandy sort of sealed the deal for us. I now have some of my best friends.”
Balzano, who benefitted from private donations and fundraisers, sums up his experience: “It wasn’t only what we did. It’s what other people had done to help us accomplish what we had accomplished.” Smiling sweetly, he explains, “I can’t think this place as my own anymore. It’s much better. It’s everybody.”