Hurricane Sandy Devastates Sheepshead Bay Business Owners


Small businesses run by immigrants from the former Soviet Union are struggling to get back on their feet in Sandy’s aftermath.

Freezers and equipment were overturned and damaged by Hurricane Sandy at Arbuz, a cafe on Sheepshead Bay Road. Photo credit: ROVSHAN DANILOV

Throughout the evening of Oct. 29, as Hurricane Sandy’s winds howled, Rovshan Danilov sat at home watching the weather outside his Sheepshead Bay café through a security camera he installed when the restaurant was built. From seven blocks away, Danilov saw floodwater rising rapidly on Sheepshead Bay Road. Once the storm surge made the street look like a river and Danilov’s camera lost power, he made up his mind: he would leave the safety of his home, get to the café, and salvage anything he could.

“My wife was like, ‘You’re crazy, you’re crazy, what are you doing?’” Danilov recalled. But he had invested so much time, money and effort into his café that he felt he couldn’t stay home and do nothing.

Danilov and his brother Amar set off just after midnight, driving at first, but then walking and swimming the last three blocks through four-foot-high floodwater. Sheepshead Bay Road had become a desolate waterway, and as he swam, Danilov saw a school of fish heading down the street. At one point his foot hit a large metal object; he thinks it was part of an uprooted phone booth. The tropical storm-force winds howled, but Danilov was too focused on his café, named Arbuz, to be scared.

“At that moment there was me and the store–there was nothing in between,” he said.

Silently praying that his store was safe, Danilov opened the front door, only to find Arbuz drowning in almost five feet of water. He said the image still gives him chills.

“Basically our lives went to the store,” he said. “I can’t really describe it in words, it was just devastating.”

Sandy hit Danilov’s Brooklyn neighborhood hard, wiping out many small businesses owned by immigrants who, like him, hail from the former Soviet Union. Dozens of shops on the main streets of Emmons Avenue and Sheepshead Bay Road, including restaurants, clothing retailers and electronics stores, suffered extensive flood damage and power outages.

Theresa Scavo, the chairwoman of Brooklyn Community Board 15, said that just about all of the small businesses in Sheepshead Bay’s downtown have been shuttered due to storm damage; some went more than two weeks with no electrical power.

“A lot of these places are small mom-and-pop shops,” she said, “and it’s very difficult to come up with money needed to redo your entire place.”

Danilov, who came to the U.S. from Azerbaijan in 1992, said fixing Arbuz could cost half a million dollars. His refrigerators, cooking appliances and computers were corroded by the salt water from the flood and will have to be replaced. All of the store’s produce and dairy were lost, and salt water remains trapped behind the walls; it needs to be removed to prevent mold.

The damage to Golden Door jewelry store on Sheepshead Bay Road was extensive. Photo Credit: REBEKAH MINTZER

To help to pay for the damage, Danilov is applying for a low-interest disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which is offering physical and economic disaster injury loans for small businesses damaged by Sandy. Businesses are eligible to receive up to $2 million from the program, plus additional funds for measures that would help them reduce losses in the case of future disasters.

Irene Nadelson owns Tête-à-Tête, a Sheepshead Bay bistro severely damaged during Sandy. She has increased the limit on her credit card and opened an additional card to hold her business over while seeking a loan from the government.

“We’re a small business, we put everything into this, our hearts and souls,” said Nadelson, who is originally from Belarus. “This is our source of income, we’re left with no income right now, and it’s difficult.”

More than two weeks after the storm hit, Nadelson’s store was still without electricity. She did not know how much time it would take to get it restored or repair the damage. Tête-à-Tête is about 1,500 feet from the waterfront, but that did not stop rushing water from reaching a height of four to five feet inside the store, breaking through the glass storefront and seeping in through the basement.

Nadelson cried when she returned to her café the day after Sandy.

“As I walked in, I saw all of our refrigerators, our cake display, our low boy, our computers, our furniture, countertops, everything was flipped upside down and everything was scattered all over the place–glass all over, paper all over, napkins, sugar, cups–everything,” she said.

Although her business was in the evacuation zone declared by the city, Nadelson said she does not have flood insurance because she and many other business owners in the area never expected to be inundated by flooding.

“You get nothing from insurance, so you have to take out loans on top of the loans that you have, and you put yourself in more debt,” she said.

Lana Britsker, owner of the Golden Door jewelry store, said the process of applying for Small Business Administration disaster loans was too complicated to understand, so she had to turn her application over to an accountant.

“They have centers but I don’t have time to do that,” she said. She is spending all of her time trying to get her Sheepshead Bay Road shop, which was under four feet of water, back to normal.

Britsker, who is from Ukraine, said that there has been little government or media presence in the neighborhood since the storm, and aid organizations don’t seem to be paying much attention either.

“Nobody’s talking about Sheepshead Bay,” she said. “It’s like a ghost town today.”


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