Hungry For Customers or Aid, Rockaways Businesses Struggle

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One of two closed supermarkets on the Rockaway Peninsula.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

One of two closed supermarkets on the Rockaway Peninsula.

To understand the effect of Hurricane Sandy on Breezy Point’s population, one can look at the bread aisle at Deirdre Maeve’s Supermarket in the community’s only commercial strip along Rockaway Point Boulevard. There’s a loaf of wheat here and a package of rolls there, but for the most part, the metal racks are bare.

That’s not because deliveries aren’t coming through, says manager Sam Sirriyeh. It’s because there aren’t enough customers to buy any more. “No one lives here, my friend,” Sirriyeh says on a misty Monday afternoon as he sits in his cramped office.

The physical impact of Sandy on the Rockaways is hard to miss; there is a mountain of wreckage gathering at Jacob Riis Park, and a range of massive sand-dunes nearby, all the result of debris-removal efforts. There are hints of the human impact as well: spray-painted signs that say things like “We’ll be back better,” or a bouquet of flowers perched on a wall near between Beach 116th Street and the beach.

The economic impact is less visible, but it is ongoing. According to Kevin Alexander, the executive director of the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation, 65 to 70 percent of the 800 or so businesses that existed on the peninsula before Sandy have yet to reopen.

A set of obstacles

Some still don’t have power because of problems with the wiring in their building. Those with power may not have reliable heat or hot water. Those with storm damage are trying to find contractors, navigate the complicated maze of insurance coverage and–for tenant businesses–negotiate with a landlord. The property owner may not even be on the scene, but for the shop-owner whose livelihood depends on reopening, “he’s got to put his money in there” and hope to make good on it down the road, Alexander says.

There is aid out there, but it can be difficult to steer one’s way through the overlapping federal, state and city aid programs. “The biggest challenge right now is [getting] the technical assistance that goes into submitting the applications, understanding how the underwriting works” and gathering the tax returns and other information required, Alexander says. The latter can be especially difficult if paper files were destroyed and computer hard drives fizzled in the flood.

The impact of these challenges is uneven. At least two supermarkets are still closed, and one McDonald’s is boarded up. Chains have more resources to deal with disaster, but weren’t immune from the impact. But independent businesses are definitely more likely to be dark. Along 116th Street, a pizzeria is open but a party supplies store is closed. A deli is running but a tattoo parlor is not.

And some of the post-Sandy challenges bleed into pre-existing problems. At the end of Beach 116th, the Sand Bar restaurant had its metal gate ripped off by the storm; its insides were violently remodeled by flowing sand and water. Seven or eight adjacent businesses are also closed, but Omar, a maintenance man in a nearby building, says most of them were defunct before the storm.

The Rockaways communities, especially on the eastern end, have long had trouble attracting and sustaining businesses and jobs. “There were things that were structurally wrong with some of our businesses,” Alexander says. “They were doing just enough business to stay in business.”

Pre-existing conditions

The disaster aid programs could help solve some of those problems, because owners are given help developing business plans and creating disaster procedures to protect themselves in the next storm. But while that guidance is welcome, most business owners need money more than anything else, and some are worried about taking on debt in the form of disaster loans.

And while the storm has created a boom for some industries–what a time to do drywall–many Rockaways firms with the needed expertise are too damaged to enjoy that windfall. “There is a lot of pessimism,” says Alexander, who worries that 50 percent of independent businesses on the peninsula could fail.

Still, some are beginning to grapple with deeper questions even as storeowners and residents continue to muck out basements and hang Sheetrock. These range from the issue of whether to make permanent the temporary ferry service the city started after the storm, to how to make the Rockaways more self-sufficient in case another disaster strikes (perhaps by stashing generators at key, dry points around the island), to whether there’s a new way to market the Rockaways to beach lovers.

“How do we utilize this opportunity to make it work better for people who live there and make it a destination?” asks James Rausse, director of capital projects in the Bronx Borough President’s office and the president of the city chapter of the American Planning Association. He and other APA volunteers have been making trips out to the Rockaways to help with both the short-term business recovery effort and the longer-term planning questions–namely, where and how to rebuild.

This raises the delicate question of whether some properties should not be rebuilt. But Rausse notes that there’s a difference between rebuilding things the way they were before Sandy, and rebuilding in a different way. Homes could be built higher with no living quarters on the first floor. The wetlands of Jamaica Bay could be more aggressively restored to sop up future storm surges. These and other steps could be taken, Rausse says, “instead of telling people not to live there.”

A need for change

There are some mismatches in The Rockaways’ recovery from Sandy. In Breezy Point at the far western end, businesses are running but many residents have not returned. In Arverne and other areas in the center of the peninsula, the residents are there but many of the businesses are missing.

Transit gaps magnify the misalignment. A shuttle bus has replaced the A train but shopping carts aren’t allowed to ride. What’s more, says Omar (whose regular supermarket is one of the ones that’s shuttered), there’s no place to buy a MetroCard to use on the bus. While some drivers will let you ride without one, he says, others are strict. And Omar says businesses can be stingy about giving change–possibly because, according to Alexander, at least six bank branches are closed. So residents carry big caches of silver in their pockets to get around.

Out on Breezy Point, it would seem that a lack of customers is the last thing the Dierdre Maeve supermarket would have to worry about: The area is swarming with relief workers, contractors, police officers, even reporters. But while those newcomers might buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee, they don’t buy boxes of cereal or cans of creamed corn.

Sirriyeh says the store had to throw out $100,000 in flood-damaged food and lost several refrigerators to damage from water or a power surge. Insurers are giving him a hard time, and he’s had to cut a handful of staffers and reduce the hours for his remaining nine workers.

“We live day by day,” he says.

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