Rebuilding Fort Defiance

Commentary: A small business owner on recovering his finances, restaurant and Brooklyn neighborhood the year after Sandy

Exterior of the author's Red Hook restaurant, Fort Defiance, on November 3, 2012, days after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the waterfront neighborhood. Several coastal areas of Brooklyn have struggled to rebuild since the storm.
St. John Frizell

Red Hook, Brooklyn, is a neighborhood that was destined to be hit by a hurricane. Geographically, it juts out into New York Harbor like a cleft chin waiting to get punched. Spiritually, it sometimes feels more akin to the hardscrabble fishing villages of the North Atlantic than to, say, Brooklyn Heights, its upscale neighbor to the north. It is largely populated either by families who braved the 1980s crack epidemic that made our streets a shooting gallery, or by the people who arrived in its wake, attracted to the neighborhood’s postindustrial ragtag charm and isolation — the kind of people who in the face of adversity thrive, or at least endure. Having no access to the city’s subways, Red Hook is perhaps best known in New York for being hard to get to. But once people do arrive, they tend to stay.

On the night of Oct. 29, 2012, the black water of the harbor, provoked by Superstorm Sandy, surged onto our streets at a walking pace, and covered all but a few blocks of the neighborhood, filling basements like fishbowls and soaking nearly every ground-floor business and apartment. My girlfriend and I watched from our living room window as Coffey Park was transformed into a moonlit, wind-whipped lake. I knew my restaurant, Fort Defiance, was already under water.

When I opened Fort Defiance in 2009, I never bought the costly flood insurance that is offered to businesses through the federal government, and it is unclear how useful it would have been had I carried it — it would not have covered any interruption of business or damage in the basement. One of the first envelopes I received after mail service was restored to the neighborhood was the preemptive denial letter from my insurance company, stating that because the damage caused in Red Hook was flood-related, I would receive no benefits.

At an ad hoc meeting of local business owners a few days after the storm, we determined that the cavalry was definitely not coming — no insurance checks were in the mail, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did nothing to help businesses, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) was only offering loans. We were on our own, more or less. At that moment, none of us knew how — or if — we were going to get our doors back open.

At the same moment, though, hundreds of volunteers were streaming into Red Hook. At one office down the block from Fort Defiance, the line of volunteers waiting to check in stretched out the door and around the block on weekends. They came mostly from other parts of Brooklyn, but some came from Manhattan, or even out of state — all in their work clothes, ready to get dirty.

Though our expectations of the government, both federal and local, were low from the start, the lack of real financial support was still disappointing.

In the first few days after the storm, I spent most of my time at Fort Defiance marshaling this volunteer force, and probably close to 100 people came through and worked for a few hours before moving on. I did not get a chance to thank them all personally, but they were all prepared to do some of the most uncomfortable work imaginable, mucking out basements and ground floors covered in whatever was in that floodwater — fuel oil, sewage and other contaminants.

They were cold, tired, wet and absolutely filthy, but they kept showing up, despite near-freezing temperatures. As the full extent of the damage was revealed — close to $100,000 of lost wine and spirits, refrigerators, electrical wiring, compressors and other equipment — I really was not sure if Fort Defiance would be able to reopen. Fortunately, between the volunteers and the amount of work to be done, I never had time to think about it for too long. We just kept our hands and legs moving.

Paper chases and 'junk bonds'

We did reopen the doors the weekend after Thanksgiving, just over a month after Sandy hit, but the place was still not whole. We were living on borrowed time — we needed cash to cover operating expenses and the remaining repairs, or we would never get through the winter. I applied for two loans: one from the SBA and the other from the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The NYCEDC proved to be the more useful; after being initially rejected, I received an approval of my application in January, along with a $10,000 grant. The SBA application process, seemingly designed to exhaust applicants, stretched into spring. My loan officer requested dozens of financial documents, a handful at a time. Whenever I fulfilled a request, I would be sent on another paper chase. A few days after what I hoped would be its last request, the SBA capriciously "withdrew" my application. I fought to get my application reconsidered; the SBA yielded, and requested more documents. When an old family friend offered me a private loan, I admitted defeat and handed the SBA my surrender.

Though our expectations of the government, both federal and local, were low from the start, the lack of real financial support was still disappointing. Our community, however, responded rousingly. With help from locals who work in the nonprofit world, the business owners of Red Hook formed Restore Red Hook, an organization that eventually raised more than $500,000 to distribute to its more than 40 business members.

The most financial support I received post-Sandy was actually from our own customers, who bought overpriced gift certificates — we called them “junk bonds” — on our website. Members of the Red Hook Coalition, an affiliation of seven local nonprofits, organized most of the immediate relief effort, keeping our neighbors fed and clothed during the three-week blackout that followed the storm. In June 2013, the city’s public advocate and current Democratic nominee for mayor, Bill de Blasio, released a report that recognized the success of small community-based organizations in assisting storm victims, and called on the city government to better support these organizations. In other words, if government cannot lead, it should at least get out of the way and support the people on the front lines. 

Today, the effects of Sandy are all but imperceptible in Red Hook. The streets are clean, and business has been strong since spring. All but a few of the local businesses are back open, and the damaged apartments have been cleaned up and re-rented at higher prices. (“Recently renovated 2BR! All new appliances!”) Few landlords have made significant flood-related changes in their buildings — moving electrical panels and heaters to higher ground, for instance. This exceedingly mild summer and autumn have done nothing to convince them that Sandy was anything other than a once-in-a-lifetime event. As for Fort Defiance, we have managed to patch all the holes except the one in our bank account. The debt that many of us Red Hookers incurred to get back up and running will be haunting our books for years to come.

That said, the mood here in the run-up to the first anniversary is more celebratory than solemn. Numerous parties and events are planned, including a parade, dreamed up in one of Red Hook’s barrooms one recent afternoon, which will feature marching bands, homemade floats depicting scenes of the flood and recovery, costumes and lots of food and drink. Some people are calling it the Barnacle Parade — a celebration of the fact that we are still here, that we hung on, and an acknowledgment that in Red Hook we sometimes have to get in over our heads in order to thrive.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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