Guerra says he has coordinated with local companies to procure back-up generators and lighting systems that could be operational “within hours” in the event of a power outage. He says he has shared information about these contingency measures with the businesses that rent space inside the market.
In addition, Guerra says, about 70 percent of seafood is sold the same day it arrives. He says such fluid turnover could enable the fish market to set up temporary operations elsewhere in case of a flood or disaster that renders the facility unusable. Food regulations that mandate fish be transported and distributed in the presence of ice—instead of specific refrigeration rooms—also make the fish market more nimble than the other markets.
Four days of food across the five boroughs
According to NYCEDC’s 2016 Five Borough Food Flow report, no single distributor—including the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center—managed more than 12 percent of the food distribution system. Thus, they concluded, no specific outage would cripple the city’s entire system.
Major supermarket chains, for example, would rely on their own vertical supply lines and a network of regional distribution facilities able to pick up the slack. According to a manager at the Red Hook Fairway, the supermarket used to get produce from Hunts Point before switching to a Fairway-specific distribution center. The manager of a nearby Associated supermarket says his store receives deliveries from a C&S Wholesale Grocers facility in Pennsylvania.
Problems at the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center would, however, significantly affect independent businesses like bodegas and small grocery stores in underserved communities around the city.
“Because Hunts Point supplies a disproportionate share of the food wholesaling needs of low-income neighborhoods in New York, the impacts of damage in that area would be felt most dramatically in the communities with the fewest retail food alternatives,” the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency states.
Limited storage space at most point-of-sale facilities around the city means that most food vendors depend on “just-in-time” delivery—regular truck deliveries that enable them to restock their supplies. Experts estimate the city’s food system has enough food to last about four days.
The NYCEDC breaks down the average amount of food at various food distribution settings in its Food Flow report. City jails tend to have seven-to-ten days’ worth of food. Chain supermarkets, drugstores, hotels and hospitals have enough food to last about a week.
Chain convenience stores and bodegas stock up to five days’ worth of food while independent restaurants, coffee shops and fast food restaurants store enough food to last up to four days.
Though a problem at Hunts Point would pose a serious inconvenience for many New Yorkers, the city would not run out of food, NYCEDC says.
But Hunter College’s Food Policy Center Director Charles Platkin says he worries the city has not planned sufficiently for a crisis at Hunts Point and that he wants agencies, like NYCEDC and the Office of Emergency Management, to share more information about their contingencies plans.
“Certainly there should be transparency around what to do if the Hunts Point [Food Distribution Center] were to disappear tomorrow,” Platkin says. “It seems obvious given the circumstances after Sandy and the circumstances that recently occurred in Puerto Rico, Houston and the Florida Keys.”
Platkin says he would like to see NYCEDC take a greater role in coordinating emergency preparedness efforts among the market wholesalers.
“You don’t want to wait until a crisis hits to figure out what you’re going to do about the Hunts Point markets,” he says. “EDC says ‘We leave it to tenants to decide,’ but there is a responsibility to ensuring [the center] is secure and that we’ve thought through different potential hazards and solutions that will continue a strong flow of food supply to New York City residents.”
The deliberate pace of rebuilding
On Monday morning, Hunts Point began preparing for a new threat: Hurricane Jesse. Local business owners, nonprofit staff, city workers and building superintendents quickly reached out to senior citizens, tenant associations and other vulnerable residents to alert them. One local resident decided to go door-to-door inside her apartment building.
“Pay attention. This is happening. Keep your eyes on it,” she said.
By noon the next day, Jesse was a category 3 storm set to make landfall in 36 hours. Scientists predicted it would initiate a 13- to 18- foot storm surge somewhere in the New York City-area. Mayor de Blasio closed schools and issued an evacuation order for some hurricane zones. The MTA announced a full shut-down, which worried Hunts Point residents who said they felt isolated from evacuation centers.
Jesse struck 20 miles south of the city at around 11 a.m., packing 127 mph winds, 16-foot storm surges and up to eight inches of rain.
In Hunts Point, problems multiplied as residents lost power and sought ice to keep medications safe.