Photo by: Helen Zelon
Photo by: Helen Zelon
By: Helen Zelon
Driving out to Sheepshead Bay, parked cars line Coney Island Avenue, waiting, driverless, for gas stations – now taped off with yellow CAUTION tape – to open. Industrious entrepreneurs sell water to anyone who’s still waiting. Long lines of people with red jerry cans, seeking gas to power generators, snake around the block; some buy water, too, as a trim lady in black leggings and a white cap cycles past, a jerry can lashed into her black wire basket.
Out toward the ocean, Emmons Ave. is the Broadway of Sheepshead Bay – one side lined with pleasure craft and the other with shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, anchored by the famous (former) Lundy Brothers seafood palace and a two-story Loehmann’s, mecca for discount merch. All shuttered. The Seaport buffet, set down a set of steps, is now wrapped by an oily moat, an amorphous slick of rainbow oil eddying like a noxious lily pad as the generator-fed pump spurts out water.
Victoria Bragarnik, strolling Emmons Ave with a baby and a toddler tucked under a down blanket, said water came in to her home, on the strip of land between the Sheepshead canal and the sea. Her ground floor was damaged – baseboard heating, laundry room, flooring, all waterlogged and now useless. But, she said, it was old; “it had to be replaced anyway,” and with that sanguine sidebar, Bragarnick strolled east.
A father and son taking pictures stopped to talk; the manager of a physical therapy/rehab office on nearby Voorhees Avenue, the father, who preferred not to give his name, said they had to pump out many feet of water – and would have to replace all the dry wall and office fixtures. It was too early yet, though, to begin, as residents without power (and some without gas) waited for help. Next week would be soon enough to start.
Emmons Avenue is generally notorious for tight parking; drivers can circle and circle waiting for a diagonal spot in the mid-avenue parking strips – but today, few cars are parked. Instead, you see utility trucks, tow trucks, environmental-management trucks, the occasional bus or van, dumpsters, and dozens and dozens of walkers, out with cameras to ogle the damage.
Restaurants and cafes are the commercial backbone of Emmons Ave: Fusion Café, Tsar, Mambo Sushi: all closed, metal shutters rolled down tight, no evidence of owners or workers. At Masal Café, in the landmark Lundy Brothers corner building, mullioned windows have been broken by the storm. Dozens of tapestry-upholstered chairs are lined up on the sidewalk, basking in the weak November sun, drying out. The El Greco diner, a local haven of stout grey brick that’s packed on weekend mornings, is closed. Emmons Ave. corner deli across the street is still boarded up, five days after the storm.
Bailing by bucket
At V&S Pizza – whose owners, Joe and Dom, say there hasn’t been a V or an S since the mid 80’s when Joe bought the place – a phalanx of cousins, brothers and friends mill around the pizza counter. A 6-foot pile of refuse stands outside the shop; they’ve been clearing debris all day.
The 5-foot wave that washed through the shop destroyed everything, Joe said. “The refrigerator was upside down. The food, that’s all done. Nothing can be salvaged.”
“We’re doing the best we can. We lost everything. And we’ll be out of work, and our people will be without a job, for at least a month,” until they can clean up, restore and reopen for business. But Joe says he’s lucky; his home, in Bensonhurst, survived relatively unscathed, and he has family who will help him rebuild the business. “Never in 26 years did I see anything like this,” Joe said. “I’ve seen lots of storms, but this is the first time…”
Walking past with a half-dozen friends, Gary Chelnis, 16, of Manhattan Beach was looking for some lunch. Apparently, pizza was off the table, given the state of V&S. Chelnis, a junior at Brooklyn Tech, said that he and his father had been working for nearly 30 hours straight, hauling buckets of water out of their basement. “Thirty hours,” he said, “no sleep, no power.” As for food, “my mom drove out for sandwiches,” because they couldn’t cook at home – and nothing, but nothing, was open. Chelnis said his family’s finished basement filled with 8 feet of water – which he and his dad aimed to scoop out, a bucket at a time. Everything has to be replaced, Chelnis said, and the tenant renting an apartment that was part of the house? Gone, relocated to dry ground – and uncertain whether or when they will return.
Chelnis says his family will leave their home for two months to live with his grandparents. “We have to replace the electrics up and down the house, and the dry wall.” How he’ll get there is another question: “All the cars are gone,” he said, because they were swamped in salt-water. There was one 12-foot wave from the ocean, and another, just as tall, from the canal, that plunged everything into a killing salt bath – so, no more working cars in Manhattan Beach, for anyone.
”We have to help”
Next door to V&S, at 1715 Emmons Ave., Riza Atas owns the Istanbul restaurant, which last week was a colorful, elegant cultural enclave filled with Turkish treasures, including antiques, that Atas brought himself from overseas – and today, is a riot of colorful rubble. Hand-painted geometrical borders, Atas’ handiwork, frame shattered walls; ripped banquettes tilt helter-skelter in what was once a dining room.
“I built everything with my hand,” Atas told Brooklyn Bureau. His brother Abdul is the restaurant’s chef. Atas left the restaurant at 6:30pm on Sunday evening, everything tidy and readied for the storm. When he came back six hours later, Istanbul was in shambles, powerless and utterly destroyed. “I am 27 years in the U.S., 17 years in my restaurant. Every year, I change the design. This year, I will bring the same restaurant back. I will finish fast, as soon as possible.”
“We lost everything,” Atas said, standing shin-deep in detritus and rubble. “But we have to help the city first, we have to help the government. The smell is unbearable. But first we help the city, then the city will come to us and help.”
Atas, like many locals Brooklyn Bureau talked with, said that he was mistaken about Sandy’s power – because the buildup to Irene, last year, was more hype than substance. “Last year, it was the same thing,” he said. “They talked so much….this year, I thought it would be the same.” But of course, he added, it wasn’t.
The big boats that line Emmons’ waterside bob in the water, seemingly unperturbed. A gaggle of swans glide by under the wrecked footbridge that links Emmons to Manhattan Beach. But in the lobby of 1625 Emmons Ave., Howard Unger, Charles Cognata and Boris Ryabkin share Sandy war stories. Members of a 148-apartment co-op, Unger says they haven’t slept much in three days.
Charles echoes Riza Atas’ boy-who-cried-wolf regrets: “We got gun-shy from the last hurricane. We saw damage in our life, sure, but no where did we figure the canal would overflow,” which it did, with a vengeance that ranged from 5 to 12 feet, depending on who you’re asking. (Obviously, no one stood around to measure, but waterlines on shop and building walls prove a height of at least 6 or 7 feet.)
First no power, no no gas
‘You would’ve needed 8 feet of sandbags to protect the building from this storm,” Cognata told Brooklyn Bureau. One nearby building put up steel plates – no good, he said, against Sandy.
“It’s not a storm,” Boris said. “It’s a tsunami – a tsunami!”
“We thought we’d have minimal damage,” Cognata continued. “But we lost electricity. And the gas was cut off last night.” Until then, residents had been able to cook or reheat food. “We could cook, we could wash. We had hot water – we could survive.” But as of Friday, when the weather dropped into the 40s, National Grid asked every tenant to shut off their gas so the utility could come out and inspect the property and restore it.
“Now, we got no gas, no electric, and no phone,” Cognata said. “And we got a basement full of salt water.” In this, the coop is like all of its near neighbors on Emmons – and different, too, as 40 cars were parked in that basement during the storm. “They’re totaled,” Cognata said, “it’s the salt water.”
Also wrecked are the building mechanicals, which the salt water was corroding by the hour; plumbing and electric lines; and the elevator relays, all sited in the basement. A month ago, the co-op – a lively amalgam of races, ages, native languages and ethnicities that seems both utopian and echt-Brooklyn in its warm, nosy neighborliness – invested $60,000 in converting their boiler from oil to gas. That boiler now has to be replaced – and the still-new warranty doesn’t cover salt water, so the co-op’s on the hook for the expense.
There’s more, Unger and Cognata explain. A water tank was replaced four months ago, for $22,500. Salt water corroded the tank – but that warranty excludes salt-water flooding, too. So boiler and tank are now on the co-op’s tab.
Three years before, the lobby was renovated at a cost of $250,000. Now, all that’s left is the tilework. “Every story you hear, the next one’s worse,” Cognata said.
A high price for staying
More than half of the coop owners have left the building, for inland Brooklyn, Pennsylvania, anywhere dry and with power. As elderly ladies walked out with rolling suitcases, a mother and grown son walked in, with the great news that the son had passed the bar exam – on his first try, no less – and would start in January as a Brooklyn ADA.
Anna Rosenberg, a co-op board member whose 89-year-old father simply will not leave building, sits down to talk. He won’t leave, she says – so she won’t either. “Can you get us help?” she asks, exhausted. Until they cut the gas, she could warm food; neighbors came by for coffee. But after the gas was out, Rosenberg spent hours roaming the neighborhood looking for something warm for her father. “Everything’s closed,” she said, although at 4:30, she still hoped to find a bowl of soup somewhere for his supper.
“They forgot about Sheepshead Bay,” Cognata says. “We’re hard-working, middle-class, lower-middle-class people. We have our life savings in our apartments.” He asks Anna to keep her eye on a blue plastic bag, next to her on the lobby bench, and heads off into the darkened hallways to help someone turn off the gas in their home.
Rosenberg has lived in the building since 1982. She’s lost two cars in the underwater garage – but her father keeps asking about the car, he won’t let up. A Holocaust survivor – Anna’s mother survived Auschwitz but is no longer alive – her father counters her plea to leave with his unmatchable challenge: “You don’t know what I lived through in the war! I’m not leaving.”
Neighbors stop to ask about Rosenberg’s father. “I don’t know how to get him downstairs,” she says. They offer to help; to carry the elderly gentleman from his apartment to the street; there must be some way to remove him to safety and warmth. But he won’t budge. “If he’s here, I’m here,” Rosenberg said, flat-out. “I’m not leaving him.”
“This is bad,” Rosenberg said, “but look at the people of Breezy Point.”
A second later, Cognata’s back for the blue bag which, he explains with a grin, is filled with cash. He had to get the folding stuff to pay the guys who will pump out the basement; the first contractor, who accepted a check, didn’t come back to do the job – so Cognata stopped the check, you can be sure of that, he says. The second guy, who’s ready to go? He’ll do the job all right, but for cash only – and at a price that’s nearly three times the first bid. But with a basement full of water, sodden cars, corroding electrics and rotting debris, Cognata asks, what’s a guy to do?