The frigid cold may be what kept crowds off Cross Bay Boulevard last week, but inside Sapienza’s Deli at 164-26 Cross Bay Blvd., people idle by the counter, waiting for the orders and workers in baseball caps slice meat and pack them into cellophane wrapping.
“Half-pound pastrami!” a girl behind the counter yells out.
A man raises his hand, approaches the register and pays.
At first glance, it is hard to believe that it was only 12 weeks ago that this room was dark, cold and wet, devastated by five feet of water that barreled through the front door during Hurricane Sandy.
Sapienza’s, only one block from the Addabbo Bridge and Jamaica Bay, was hit hard by the storm. Some of the businesses around it, including a flooring company half a block away, are still out of business. That company’s building on the corner of Cross Bay Boulevard and 165th Avenue is still vacant; its metal roll-down security gates still twisted from the flood.
Angelo Mugnolo, owner of Sapienza’s, said he was able to open for business about three weeks after Sandy.
“We lost our compressors, our refrigerators, we needed everything new,” Mugnolo said. “Thank God for FEMA.”
Mugnolo said his regular customers have come back, especially for his deli’s trademark pastrami sandwiches.
His establishment is one of dozens in the neighborhood slowly returning to business as usual three months after the storm that took the community by surprise.
Glenn Dybus, a travel agent at Cross Bay Travel, said business at his office is “back to normal.”
Their office at 158-20A Cross Bay Blvd. was damaged and needed new floors. Dybus said the office’s four employees were able to work while the office was shuttered.
“We were out until the day after Thanksgiving,” he explained. “We were still able to work from our homes.”
Dybus said business is booming as local residents seek escape.
“After the shock of the hurricane and its aftermath, people just need to get away I guess,” he said.
Like Sapienza’s and Cross Bay Travel, many businesses on the boulevard are bustling. On Friday afternoon, every chair inside Explosion hair salon at 161-11 Cross Bay Blvd. was occupied and the crowd for lunch at Brother’s Ravioli across the street at 161-16 Cross Bay Blvd. resembled Penn Station at rush hour. Both locations were damaged in the storm surge.
Other businesses are partially open. The Surfside Motel, located at Cross Bay Boulevard and 165th Avenue along Shellbank Basin, is open for business, but its first floor rooms are still gutted with spackling on the walls.
The motel served evacuees from the Rockaways during the storm, but when the floodwaters came into Howard Beach, the National Guard had to evacuate the refugees from the flooded motel as the waters receded on Oct. 30. Among those evacuated, a Fox news crew, who caught footage of the hurricane’s storm surge barreling ashore from the second floor of the motel.
One of the most notable businesses still closed is Cross Bay Diner. The building at 160-31 Cross Bay Blvd. is on Shellbank Basin. It’s dining room is elevated and escaped flooding, but the business is still not open.
Tamara Jackson, a representative from the Small Business Administration, visited about 40 stores last week along Cross Bay Boulevard, reminding business owners to file applications for aid from the SBA if they haven’t already.
“I’m encouraging those homeowners and businesses who have filled out applications to return [them],” she said. “We want them to know all the options we can present to them for help.”
Jackson said most of the businesses she visited have applied or are in the process of applying. She reminded any business owner who had not applied to SBA that they can do so up until Feb. 27 by visiting any of FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Centers in the area.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said he still has concerns about the state of businesses along Cross Bay Boulevard and in Coleman Square near the subway station, which was also devastated by the storm. He said it was both economically and psychologically important for these establishments to be open.
“We need them up and running for the morale and service provided by these businesses,” Addabbo said.
Despite business chugging back to normal on the boulevard, some say it will still be some time before the neighborhood looks like it did before Sandy.
“It’ll be two to three more months before Howard Beach is back to normal,” Mugnolo said.