New York’s South Street Seaport neighborhood was heavily damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Now the small businesses are starting over—and they need our help. (First in a Fortune series, #savetheseaport)
FORTUNE — It was about 6:20 PM on October 29 when the South Street Seaport began to drown.
Jeff Lim, owner of Fish Market restaurant, and his mother, Lynn Yong, knew that Hurricane Sandy would hit their neighborhood hard. They also knew that his restaurant, the Fish Market, was particularly vulnerable. Located at 111 South Street—one of the lower points in New York City—the restaurant, known for Lynn’s “drunken fish soup” and an unofficial watering hole for locals in the touristy area, was just north of the Pier itself. So Jeff and Lynn piled up chairs on top of tables, moved food up to high shelves, sandbagged the front door, and then went upstairs to Jeff’s apartment to wait it out.
It didn’t take long. Although meteorologists had predicted that Sandy’s full force wouldn’t hit until later that evening, Lim and Yong watched from the window as long waves began to roll in not from the Pier, but from the north, crossing the street diagonally. They didn’t roll back; instead, by 8 p.m., the entire first floor of Fish Market was under eight feet of water, the kitchen destroyed.
The power went out. Cars floated down the street. Mannequins from the Abercrombie and Fitch ANF store on Water Street rested on their sides, ghostly approximations of humans in a neighborhood that had mostly been evacuated. The only sounds were the howling wind and the sloshing water. By the next morning, the waves had receded. But the damage the storm left would remain.
The South Street Seaport, known primarily as a tourist hub, isn’t the first thing you think of when calculating the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Nor should it be; many inhabitants of the Jersey Shore, the Rockaways and Staten Island have lost everything, some even their lives. But the Seaport area, which Travel & Leisure says is the 26th most visited tourist attraction in the world, has been hit hard, and it is unclear what this means for the hundreds of stores and small businesses in the area. “The worst thing,” says Lim, “is losing this neighborhood.”
Not only did those businesses sustain massive damage from the flood, but many of the large buildings whose employees spend money in the neighborhood are swamped as well, such as AIG’s 41-story headquarters on Maiden Lane, which is closed for the next few months. That’s a lifetime for a cash poor deli or gift shop owner. What’s more, the South Street Seaport’s Pier 17—a huge tourist draw—was due to be renovated within the next year and is now unlikely to reopen before its massive overhaul takes place. This quaint village has morphed into a ghost town.
On Wednesday, November 7, just a week after the storm, Fortune Senior Editor Ryan Bradley and I headed down to see what had become of the Seaport. We found water marks on walls that brought to mind Hurricane Katrina; residential buildings slapped with red (no entry) or yellow (limited entry) stickers; no power, and a few small businessmen, like Jeff, and Jason Connolly, who owns Fresh Salt, a restaurant around the corner at 146 Beekman Street, ripping drywall out and starting all over again.
Lim said he was determined to reopen, if for no other reason than to give his remaining neighbors a place to congregate. “I just want to make it feel normal down here,” he said. And he did that Friday night, serving bottled beer and inviting locals to scribble on a bit of exposed drywall that remains (“Well, then THAT happened,” wrote one).
As business writers, we at FORTUNE realized that one way we could help was by publicizing what has happened at to the Seaport and by encouraging people to go there (power is mostly restored, and some places are open). On Monday, November 12, the FORTUNE staff went down en masse to have a drink at the Fish Market (they won’t be serving food for a while) and Meade’s, another bar that got hit hard (22 Peck Slip). We found a bunch of survivors who are committed to reopening—but worry that they won’t be able to repay small business loans and rehire employees if they don’t get the traffic they depend upon.
In the months to come, we will write weekly dispatches chronicling the neighborhood as it recovers. If you haven’t been down to the Seaport, now’s the time. The tall ships are still there; river cruises still run if enough people show up. Photograph your party—dining or shopping or picking up a Coke at the local bodega—and we’ll add you to the Fortune Facebook Wall. Thanks!! #savetheseaport