The southern end of Conover Street was full of smiling people on a warm night last month, their spirits buoyed by alcohol and the fact that Sunny’s, the century-old waterfront bar in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, was finally back on its feet 10 months after Superstorm Sandy had knocked it out.
Dressed in a blood-red shirt and black suspenders, his grizzled hair pulled back in a ponytail, bar owner Sunny Balzano tearfully thanked the crowd of well-wishers after stepping to the microphone to the tune of “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme song from Rocky.
Like the Italian Stallion, Sunny’s Bar will live to fight another day.
“My goodness,” the 79-year-old Mr. Balzano exclaimed. “It took a little longer than it would to make a baby … but we did it.”
Sadly, many other Red Hook businesses haven’t been so lucky. Nearly a year after Sandy’s 14-foot storm surge inundated ground-floor businesses, at least four merchants are gone forever, including two artisanal gift shops and, ironically, an insurance firm that was the only area business covered by a flood policy.
On the surface, Red Hook looks much as it did before the storm, with trucks trundling in and out of the loading docks at Fairway, the big grocery store that reopened in March after sustaining heavy damage.
And on a recent afternoon, restaurant/café Fort Defiance was again dishing up turkey clubs and iced teas, and construction work was even underway nearby at Hometown, a barbecue joint whose scheduled 2012 opening was delayed until this month by the storm.
Bad times continue
But area business owners insist that the pain lives on. Many continue to struggle to get federal storm assistance, and a few have given up in the face of unending red tape. With the colder months certain to make their usual major dent in the ranks of visitors, the fear of declining revenue colliding with heightened levels of debt is palpable.
“People think that things are open, and we’re back to normal,” said Monica Byrne, co-owner of Home/Made, a restaurant and catering business on Van Brunt Street, the area’s main drag. “But what people don’t see is the huge amount of debt that everyone has had to take on, or whether they are able to make their payroll or able to make their rent—or whether they owe their electrician almost $10,000, like we do.”
In the September primary, Red Hook residents voted out Councilwoman Sarah Gonzalez in favor of a Mexican-American newcomer, Carlos Menchaca. Many voters felt that Ms. Gonzalez had been absent after Sandy.
Storm-relief loans from the U.S. Small Business Association and the New York Business Development Corp., the two major programs, have been hard to come by, according to local shop owners.
An SBA spokeswoman noted that the agency has approved more than 2,000 disaster loans to New York businesses, for a total of $264 million.
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Ms. Byrne estimates that most Red Hook businesses affected by the storm each sustained $30,000 to $125,000 in damage, not including lost sales revenue.
St. John Frizzell, owner of Fort Defiance, said that after several rounds, the SBA “mysteriously” dropped his loan application, forcing him to call it quits and make do with a $10,000 city loan.
“It’s the constant sending you back to the well,” he said. “You get there, you’ve got your documents, and you need to go back and get this one, or that one. And then it’s three more. And then it’s one more.”
Red Hook Lobster Pound, which boasts of having the best lobster rolls in the city, was able to reopen after four months thanks in part to a pair of loans from the city that paid for most of the flood-¬damage repairs and the relocation of wiring to above the waterline.
But since then, co-owner Susan Povitch has encountered a new problem. The closing of some nearby manufacturing firms has hurt her lunchtime business. After spending $400,000 on repairs and improvements, she has put her dream of an expansion on hold.
In contrast, Frances Medina, executive coordinator of a community-service group called Red Hook Initiative, notes that Sandy had one small silver lining. She points to a project spearheaded by teenagers from Red Hook’s sprawling public-housing complex to bring free Wi-Fi to the area that received funding for antennas from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” she said.
Correction: Hometown is a barbecue joint in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The name of the restaurant was misstated in an earlier version of this article published Sept. 13, 2013.