In the chaotic, confusing days after Hurricane Sandy last fall, Bart and Christine Scibilia did what they do every day. They opened up their pet store.
The power was out, but Animal Pantry at 137-20 Cross Bay Blvd. in Ozone Park — just steps from the Belt Parkway — escaped the destruction and devastation that riddled the boulevard’s commercial strip a half-mile south. There was no flooding or serious wind damage. For the first week after the storm, the Scibilias, who live only a few blocks away from the store, opened the doors to customers looking to buy food and other items for their pets.
“We were without power for eight days,” Christine said. “But we were able to open and serve customers.”
But as things churned back to normal at Animal Pantry, the Scibilias were taken by surprise by a different kind of customer in need coming to their door.
With the power back on, a number of Howard Beach residents drove out of dark, damaged neighborhoods, looking for a temporary home for their pets.
“As soon as they saw the lights, they came running,” Bart said.
Fish, reptiles, cats and even a parakeet arrived, their owners begging for a warm place to keep them while they fixed their damaged homes and waited for power to be restored.
Bart admitted that he was initially leery about taking in the four-legged, feathered and finned refugees, but said he couldn’t turn down customers in need.
“We knew we had to step in and help the community,” Bart said.
Christine agreed, emphasizing that her family wants their customers and anyone else in the neighborhood to know they are always there to help.
“We just want the community to know we’re here to serve them,” she said.
Bart said Animal Pantry played host to 15 to 20 fish evacuated from Howard Beach, some of which are still being housed in the Scibilia’s display tanks in the back room. A customer’s baby tortoises are still taking shelter at the store, as is the parakeet.
The store’s staff of 12 helped care for the pets. Bart fed the animals with his store’s food supply, even as their owners, who would come often to visit their refugee friends, offered to pay.
He did admit that the store took a small hit from opening its doors to evacuees because of the cost of food and use of the tanks for evacuated animals instead of holding fish for sale, but shrugged it off.
The Scibilias even assisted customers with transporting their pets to Dr. Steven Weinstein, an area veterinarian, who opened a makeshift practice at JFK Airport after his offices were flooded on Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach.
The Scibilias have only owned the pet store for about a year, taking it over from the previous owner who had employed their daughter Chantal, for nearly a decade. Chantal, the Scibilias said, is the “brains of the operation.”
But the family has become a typical example of mom-and-pop store owners. Customers in the store know them on a first-name basis. Many of their customers were unaware of their double duty as a pet shelter after Hurricane Sandy.
“I didn’t know they did that, but I’m not surprised.” said one customer, who regularly buys dog food and other items for her dog at the store. “They’re good people.”