Red Hook Needs No Reminder of Sandy's Impact

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Angela Torres who lives in Red Hook Houses with her husband and their three children, says the storm fused a deeper unity among neighbors that continues a year later.

Photo by: Caitlin Johnson

Angela Torres who lives in Red Hook Houses with her husband and their three children, says the storm fused a deeper unity among neighbors that continues a year later.

Under strings of lights on a chilly October evening nearly a year to the day that Hurricane Sandy struck, more than 600 people gathered for the seventh annual Taste of Red Hook last Tuesday. Forty-eight local businesses donated food, drinks and items for a silent auction to raise funds for the local community center, the Red Hook Initiative (RHI).

As guests tasted fried mac-n-cheese, Congee and locally smoked meat, and cheered the frequent popping of champagne corks, Sandy seemed a distant memory. Yet the storm is never far from anyone’s lips in this low-lying section of Brooklyn.

A year ago, this space—PioneerWorks, a warehouse turned artist studio—was under six feet of water, enough to submerge all but the tallest in attendance.

This was the largest turnout to date for the annual event, raising over $125,000 for RHI.

“There were more people in that room than we’ve seen in Red Hook in a while,” says Barry O’Meara, co-owner of the corner bar Red Hook Bait & Tackle. “It’s been an intense year.”

“A New Normal”

A year after tidewaters rose as high 14 feet in many parts of Red Hook, the immediate, visible needs have largely been met—basements bailed out, drywall replaced, mold removed—but less tangible impacts persist.

There’s palpable anxiety among business owners and residents alike: What will it take to recover fully? And are we ready if something like this happens again?

All but a handful of businesses have reopened and some new ventures have come into the community, including the restaurants Hometown and Posh Tomato, and an auction house set to open in November on Pier 44.

Many local business owners credit ReStore Red Hook, an initiative of the Fund for the City of New York, and individual donors for helping them get back on their feet. Most have also relied on NYC Emergency Loans from the city, from $5,000 and up.

That’s cause for some concern. “There’s a certain amount of glossing over that’s happening because businesses are open,” says Noah Bernamoff, owner of Mile End Deli.

Bernamoff’s production kitchen, bakery and smokehouse at Pier 41 in Red Hook were wiped out; he was unable to salvage a single item of inventory.

“Everyone here has taken on a great burden just to be open,” he says. “Assistance was largely inaccessible for most of us, and the assistance that was available is really a form of leveraging one’s business—and that’s a weak economic position to be in.”

Shannon Hummel runs Cora Dance, a studio and workshop with a mission is to make dance accessible to all local residents, and that operates on a pay-what-you-can basis.

“We’re not back to normal so much as a new normal,” says Hummel. “As an organization, we’re less stable than we were financially and institutionally because we’re still reeling from losses from Sandy. We lost income and I think that’s happening across the board.”

As with businesses, many residents are still struggling. The majority have returned to their homes. Some, like LaNette Hodge, who lives with her husband and son in an apartment above the Fairway Market, suffered little damage and were displaced for days, not weeks.

Others like Jolene Festa have had a harder time. She, her husband and their nine-year-old son moved back into their Dykeman Street brownstone just four weeks ago—largely because they had to wait for insurance payments to begin reconstruction.

“I wasn’t willing to go into debt,” Festa says. “It’s amazing how much insurance expects you to be able to pay upfront. We wiped out our savings and struggled with the banks and our insurance, but we were firm that we weren’t using any credit cards.”

Amid the Chaos, Support

“The weeks that followed the hurricane were devastating but there were also moments of beauty,” says Jill Eisenhard, founder and executive director of Red Hook Initiative. “Red Hook did what Red Hook does. People took action.”

The steady outpouring of community support was and continues to be “gorgeous, beautiful,” says Karin Wiener, who runs Red Hook Bait & Tackle with her partner Barry O’Meara. They re-opened the day after the storm—despite having no power and a basement full of water corroding their machinery—and served as a gathering place for volunteers to eat, drink and share information.

“Two days after the storm, a neighbor came in and gave me a $10,000 check and said you need this more than I do right now,” says O’Meara. “And we’ve not said a word about it since, other than when I give him a check for $1,000 at a time and he asks, ‘Are you sure you can pay this back now?’ and I say yes.”

Caroline Parker and her husband Kevin Moore run Kevin’s, a gourmet eatery. Like many, they lost all of their inventory; damage kept them shuttered for four months.

Parker says acts of generosity are a way of life in Red Hook: “We knew a guy who ran a local marble business here who moved away before Sandy. On a whim, we called him up after the storm and he said he had leftover marble still in Red Hook, and it was all ours. That’s how we managed to rebuild our rose bar.”

The Red Hook Initiative was one of the few buildings that had power after Sandy. It became a hub during the recovery, organizing volunteers and supplies, and working with residents and businesses across the community to provide services.

RHI’s free local WiFi project, begun before Sandy, got a boost when FEMA showed up with a high-powered antenna to help it reach nearly all of Red Hook. At the peak, more than 1,000 people were using the network each day.

City sanitation services also provided a critical—and much-praised—lifeline for residents and business owners. Workers showed up early and came back often, making cleanup and recovery possible.

“Sandy crossed every socioeconomic and racial line, and everyone had a hand in pulling the community back together,” says Shannon Hummel. “That’s not to say that we’re all equal in terms of the resources we have, but I think everyone found resources in one another that they didn’t know they had before.”

Resident wonder about NYCHA’s plans

At the nearby Red Hook Houses—Brooklyn’s largest public housing development—the water line is still visible on the brick exterior of the buildings. Residents here were without power for 17 days, and many buildings still lacked hot water 21 days after Sandy. Even today, a large tractor truck parked behind one of the buildings serves as a temporary boiler.

Angela Torres who lives in Red Hook Houses with her husband and their three children watched as the waters rose to the roofs of parked cars in just a few minutes, worrying about her parents in their second-floor apartment.

Torres says that Sandy “brought the community closer. I saw people working hard, helping each other out. It wasn’t about the usual street fights and nonsense, and a lot of that has stayed true even a year later,” she says.

On Oct. 23, the day after the Taste of Red Hook, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) held an event at Red Hook Houses to inform residents of emergency procedures.

Ricardo Reed, a Red Hook resident whose business card lists his occupation as producer-musician-creative-writer-motivational-speaker and creator of “Ricar’do” lotion, says he’s glad to see NYCHA communicating with residents but he’s concerned they haven’t solved the problem of what to do about families in the top floors of the high-rise projects the next time they lose power, heat or hot water.

“NYCHA is not ready for the next one. And there will be a next one,” Reed says.

Michael Johnson, senior advisor to the general manager of NYCHA, says the agency is “better able than ever to make sure power, lights and hot water are working and residents have a plan.”

On Tuesday Oct. 29, Red Hook residents will mark Sandy’s anniversary with vigils and marches from Coffey Park to the water. Saturday at 2pm will be a barbeque at the VFW to honor the city sanitation workers and volunteers.