In Storm-Battered Coney, a Trickle of Relief Faces a Deluge of Damage

Print More
A line of sand shows how high the storm surge rose at Manny Cohen's Bowery shop.

Photo by: Neil deMause

A line of sand shows how high the storm surge rose at Manny Cohen's Bowery shop.

Drive along the Brooklyn beachfront, and at first, things don’t look quite that bad. Massive trees have fallen along Ocean Parkway and in Asser Levy Park, crushing unsuspecting cars; power is still out to most of the peninsula, so cars creep along, slowing at every darkened traffic light; miniature dunes blow in riffles down the length of Surf Avenue, and the smell of wet sand is everywhere. But the landmarks that identify Coney Island, from the Wonder Wheel and Parachute Jump down to the low-income housing towers of the West, are still undisturbed.

It’s only when one stops and looks into the ruined storefronts along Mermaid Avenue, and into the shell-shocked eyes of residents, that one realizes that the scale of devastation on this peninsula of 100,000 people goes far beyond outward damage — and from all appearances, beyond anything that the current level of city, state, and federal aid can make an immediate dent in.

“We lost everything, simple and easy,” said Yousef Alhamshali late Saturday afternoon as he stood outside the grocery store he owned on 32nd Street and Mermaid Avenue, piling what used to be merchandise into one of the many mounds of black garbage bags that have sprouted along the avenue. He was just lowering his store’s gates when the storm surge hit, he explained; the rush of water ultimately rose to more than six feet inside his store, soaking his merchandise and shoving a heavy ice cream cooler from the front of the store to the back wall. “I think everybody lost their businesses in this neighborhood.”

Along West 37th Street at the boundary between Coney Island and Sea Gate, residents gathered in the street outside their darkened homes, unsure whether to begin cleanup, or to await a visit from FEMA officials who, they said, had yet to appear. Victoria Hammond’s basement home was a tangle of upturned appliances and sodden furniture. “This used to be a whole apartment,” she said, staring into the gloom. “I lost everything. I lost everything.”

Help arrives, slowly

A major influx of government help began to show up on Friday, as a FEMA station set up in the Brooklyn Cyclones parking lot, and National Guard trucks took position along Surf Avenue over the weekend to dispense food and water. As early as Wednesday, though, staffers from the city’s Economic Development Corporation — parent group to the Coney Island Development Corporation that helped oversee the area’s recent rezoning — had set up to contact residents and shopkeepers about how to seek aid.

On Saturday alone, said EDC official Elijah Hutchinson, he signed up 200 volunteers who arrived from all over the city to a temporary staging area at the recently opened Tom’s Restaurant location on the boardwalk. He handed out flyers and flashlights, and sent volunteers out in pairs into the West End, the largely impoverished district of high-rises and small townhouses about a mile to the west of the amusement district.

“The majority of where we’re trying to focus our efforts are just getting people into the 20-story buildings that don’t have electricity or working elevators and making sure that people are being tended to in terms of their basic needs,” said Hutchinson. Beyond that, he said, “People need to have a sense that something is happening, that attention is being given to them. A lot of residents and businesses feel neglected, and don’t feel like they’re getting the kind of attention or press coverage that other areas are getting.”

First and foremost, said residents and shopkeepers, what they need right now are the basic necessities of life. With much of Coney Island served by overhead wires, electricity has returned to only a patchwork of blocks, and even those residents lack heat, hot water, and phone service. Food in refrigerators has spoiled, and there is no way to buy more, as no stores are open within a mile radius. (Some were also looted, in particular a Key Food on Neptune Avenue, but shopkeepers said that frequent police patrols helped stave off worse. “The cops, they did a good job,” said Alhamshali. “Probably they learned from what happened in Louisiana.”) Subway service still ends miles away, at Bay Parkway and Avenue X, thanks to the power outage, and buses are few and far between. And with any cars that remained through the storm now destroyed by seawater, supermarkets in the rest of Brooklyn are but a distant rumor.

Why they stayed

Coney Island is entirely within Zone A, which Mayor Bloomberg declared before the storm to be a mandatory evacuation zone. But for a variety of reasons, many Coney residents decided to stay put.

“A lot of people stayed here, not realizing that this was the perfect storm,” said Rican Vargas, head of the Coney Island Dancers, who spent the night of the storm helping people climb down from the elevated train tracks where they’d taken refuge from the water. Sharon Lundy, the administrative director for the Brooklyn Cyclones, said she wanted to leave as Sandy approached, but her parents refused to evacuate. After a harrowing night that left her unable to sleep for three days, she said, “I told them, I love them and all, but next time I’m leaving them.”

Near her West 24th St. apartment, Joyce Grace walked up and down Mermaid Avenue, as she said she has every day since the storm. The 65-year-old decided to wait out the storm in her 12th-floor apartment at the privately owned rental building Ocean Towers, in order to stave off any robberies. Now, they were effectively trapped, with the elevator out and her husband’s heart condition leaving him unable to walk down the twelve flights to seek shelter elsewhere.

Their food long since spoiled and no stores within walking distance, they’ve been surviving on groceries driven in by Grace’s sister across Coney Island Creek in the city-owned Marlboro Towers. “It’s very bad. No lights. The apartment is so cold,” she said. “And there’s another storm is going to come, what are we going to do then? We can’t shop, there’s no stores out here. Where am I supposed to go buy food?” She hadn’t been to the FEMA site yet for fear of leaving her husband alone; “I tried to call 311, I can’t get through.”

Between city and federal efforts, help is slowly fanning out into the neighborhood, and a meeting for business owners is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at Tom’s. But both residents and shopkeepers said that time is not a luxury that they can afford. “The owners of these buildings, they don’t care if we get in a flood, they want their rent,” said Alhamshali. “I’m probably going to close up if the city doesn’t help me.”

Hidden damage at amusement zone

Things are not much better in the well-known amusement district. Though much looks outwardly undamaged, said Hutchinson, “some of those buildings are just facades — there’s nothing behind them.” (In many cases, it remains hard to tell the extent of damage, as the raging surf first shoved shop contents back, then sucked them back out, blocking front doors.) MCU Park, the home of the Cyclones, was “totaled,” according to Lundy, with massive water damage. Manny Cohen, owner of a strip of arcades and a videogame sales shop on the Bowery adjacent to Luna Park, pointed to a row of newly delivered game machines, now destroyed by salt water. He placed some of machines atop flats to keep them off the ground, he explained, but didn’t count on the six feet of surf that invaded his shop. In all, he estimated, he lost $300,000 in equipment. “I’m finished. They’re not gonna give me that kind of money.”

A short distance away on West 10th Street, Charlie Denson cleaned up the water-soaked artifacts at the Coney Island History Project storefront alongside Deno’s Wonder Wheel. (The Wheel itself is intact, he said, but “they’ve lost everything” else, including the Spook-o-Rama.) The Coney Island-born Denson, author of several books about the beachfront and its history, opted to ride out Hurricane Sandy at the home of friends in Sea Gate, figuring if nothing else he could document the storm’s effect on the neighborhood.

By Monday evening, he watched from the building’s third floor as neighbors fled the floodwaters through floating debris, listening to the sound of brick houses along the nearby beachfront being ripped apart. A short time later, his car sank underwater, its lights and horn going on. “It drifted out into the street underwater. It was very eerie.”

At 3 a.m., he finally fell asleep. “And I woke up in the morning, and it was a different landscape.