On a warm Saturday in early October, Emily Axelrod subtly smiled as she surveyed the calm ocean off Brighton Beach, a heavily Jewish neighborhood in south Brooklyn.
“Now it’s gorgeous,” the 66-year-old Ukrainian immigrant said as she strolled down Riegelmann Boardwalk. But life was dramatically different a year ago, when Hurricane Sandy hit. The Oct. 29 storm ravaged 14 miles of New York City beaches, ruined businesses and homes and left thousands seeking shelter. “It was terrible,” said Axelrod. “You wouldn’t recognize this place. It was like after a war.”
Axelrod, who lives in nearby Sheepshead Bay, fared better than friends in Staten Island whose possessions were totally ruined by the seawater that flooded their homes. Yet she did experience four difficult days. “There was no electricity, no elevator. It was very bad for old people. No home phone, no cell phone, no TV,” she said, basking in the low sun on a boardwalk bench with her husband and an elderly relative from Riga, Latvia.
The basement of Vintage Food, blocks away on bustling Brighton Beach Avenue, also flooded. According to manager Yuksel Pece, the store was forced to throw $15,000 worth of inventory into the dumpster. Yet the international emporium was able to open within a week, after a friend brought over a generator. Soon the store was serving hot tea, sometimes giving it away. “They could not make it at home,” Pece said, adding that the store allowed some people to buy on credit during those difficult days, even as the business was literally rebuilding its foundation.
“I don’t know of one business not affected by the hurricane,” said Yelena Makhnin, executive director of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District. She calls the local merchants “very hard working” and not in the habit of waiting around for help. “That’s not the Brighton Beach story.”
“I came to Brighton Beach October 30 at 7 a.m. [the day after the storm] and people were already pumping out water from their businesses,” Makhnin said. Lower levels of the many shops on Brighton Beach Avenue are used to store equipment and dishes, and prepare food. “Everything in the basement became garbage,” she said. Makhnin added that many business owners remain deeply frustrated by insurance companies, which did not reimburse them for the damage.
On the surface, Vintage looks jam-packed with customers who queue up for California pistachios, Turkish candies, coffee beans and Brooklyn-baked pita and Barbari breads. But Pece says profits are down 60%; Sandy teamed up with a wobbly economy to create a perfect storm, one which continues to have an impact on the neighborhood.
At Gold Label International Food, also on Brighton Beach Avenue, small, dark loaves are flown in from Latvia, and Russian-speaking staff slice a seductive array of European cheeses, sausages and salamis. The delicatessen’s manager said they were closed for two weeks after the storm damaged their downstairs, but demand for chicken Kiev, stuffed peppers and cabbage, pickles and house-baked cakes is as high as it was before Sandy.
Farther along Little Odessa’s main shopping strip, employees at a produce market say they lost all their fruits and vegetables during the storm and had to completely replace refrigerator cases and restock every onion, grape and carrot. Today the corner spot swarms with savvy customers who frown when asked about the storm, though one man pointed to his knees to demonstrate how high the water rose. Asking where the apples or cucumbers were grown provoke only a shrug from sellers and shoppers; these days everyone appears more focused on price than provenance or on Sandy’s approaching anniversary, which they’d rather forget.