Millburn businesses reopen after Hurricane Ida

MILLBURN, NJ – To survive the waves of the pandemic, Kevin Cao, the owner of the Thai House restaurant, has interrupted food service, cut five staff members and kept his drunken noodles, pad thai and curry moving. with curbside pickup and delivery.

Then the remains of Hurricane Ida reached her door.

On the night of September 1, over seven inches of rain fell in four hours and a torrent rolled down the nearby slopes of the South Mountain to the Rahway River, which flows 10 feet from Thai House. Usually, it looks like a stream, but the water from the river swelled on the concrete walls of its channel around 8 p.m. Mr. Cao, 37, put down sandbags and called 911.

Unable to open the restaurant’s front door, he told his five employees to leave everything and led them to a back room, where he climbed onto a refrigerator and pushed ceiling tiles. They climbed into the ceiling crawl space and rushed to HighLine Fashion, a nearby store. Mr. Cao tore the ceiling there and lowered a ladder into the toilet. They waded through chest-high water to the front door to escape.

“Good job in my store, man,” Tammi Siedlecki, the owner of HighLine Fashion, told Mr. Cao the next day as they cleaned up. “I don’t know how you understood this. “

Merchants need to be nimble in Millburn. The river used to feed a paper mill, but following Ida’s flash flood, retailers and restaurateurs are estimating how much extra water they can absorb in the affluent town’s flood zone, where they sell everything, from hemp to hibachi chicken. Still competing with high-end stores in the Mall at Short Hills, Main Street business owners are reassessing their models and insurance plans as fears of more frequent flooding grow in Ida’s wake.

“You want to run away, but I have kids to go to college. You need a job, ”said Mario DeMarco, owner of Basilico, a popular Italian restaurant. “Everyone asks, why don’t you move out? Very stressful. “

Ida was the worst storm for him to date. Mr DeMarco, 56, grew up in Italy, arrived in the United States in 1988 and first visited Millburn, a town of 20,000, shortly thereafter, while on hiatus after having worked on a cruise ship. It moved to its current site in 1999. Three months later, water from Hurricane Floyd flooded its basement. In 2011, Hurricane Irene again crested the river. Six years later, his wife, Julie Randazza, florist, moved into the building next to his; Ida devastated both businesses. He has flood insurance; she received nothing from her standard insurance. They rented and decided it would reopen while she filled in the garage orders for their house.

“When I walk inside the house, the flowers remind me of the cemetery,” he said.

Recovery began once the water receded around 11:30 p.m. on the night of the storm. Business owners rushed in but feared stepping into manholes that had lost their blankets in the water. At 3 a.m., Marlene Hawes, 70, part owner of Buncher’s Hardware, a century-long rampart of Millburn Avenue, descended from her residence above the store to hand out shovels and pumps. At sunrise, homeowners discovered flooded basements and trash such as mannequins, cooking utensils and vegetables had been hauled several blocks downstream to Taylor Park. Just before noon William Miron, principal of Millburn High School, emailed the students. The subject line was: Downtown Millburn – volunteers? Already the cross-country team had run to Sneaker Factory to help the owner. More teens rushed to help.

They shoveled piles of mud into wheelbarrows, pushed them onto the sidewalk and threw them there to be picked up by the garbage crews. The alarms have been ringing all day. GoFundMe pages appeared; Governor Phil Murphy paid a visit the next day to Tim Sullivan, chief executive of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, who called the state’s small business owners “resilient as hell.” They announced a $ 10 million emergency fund pool, and business owners could apply for grants of up to $ 5,000. Jesús Núñez, who lost his job as a business owner in March 2020, was working on opening an art gallery in Millburn. Four days after Ida, he hosted a pop-up titled “Ida Rather Be Open”.

The addresses changed overnight and the owners got creative. Jumana Culligan, the owner of Paper, Ribbon & Wrap, lost her gift shop but was able to move from her lease to the basement of The Book House, where she knew the owner, two blocks away. Ms. Siedlecki moved into a vacant storefront and announced the “Flash Flood Sale! “

Stories of survival and rescue have circulated. At Millburn Standard, a bar and restaurant that opened in 2020, workers were inside when the floodwaters arrived. Behind his building, the waters carried the Chief’s sport utility vehicle and several dumpsters into the culvert under Millburn Avenue. Firefighters rescued workers in a front loader.

Cliff Geissler, a builder, was in his office above Garden State Hemp, when he heard a driver honking his horn during the flood. Joseph Siaba, the driver, had stalled after trying to cross the rising waters with the engine. Mr Geissler, 58, got Mr Siaba out of his jeep, carried him inside, gave him a chicken dinner and let him sleep on his sofa.

The newcomers learned to negotiate the landscape. Sam Eckstein, 32, co-founded Springbone Kitchen, which specializes in bone broth and gluten-free bowls, in 2016, and opened the first store in Greenwich Village. Business was good and growing.

But when the coronavirus ravaged New York City, doubt over Manhattan’s future led Mr Eckstein to seek out locations in the suburbs. A friend who was building a house in Millburn recommended that he look around town, and Mr Eckstein liked the small town environment, imagining that residents working from home became regular customers. In August 2020, he signed a lease on a location opposite Thai House. After converting the space, he hung a Coming Soon sign on the window. The restaurant was a week away from opening when Ida struck; it will take four months to get back to this point.

“Quite devastating, but we intend to get out of this,” he said.

A month after Ida, store owners who applied for city relief grants received an email from Steve Grillo, the executive director of the township’s new Special Improvement District. Mr. Grillo had already distributed $ 140,000 to 32 businesses in the city. But without state approval, he wrote, no additional funding would be allocated, including $ 220,000 from the city’s reserve fund. He encouraged candidates to speak at a city committee meeting on October 5.

One by one, the traders approached the town hall microphone, pointed out the damage and asked for help. James Rotondo, owner of the famous Goldberg’s Deli, noted that he had lost $ 150,000 in equipment and tens of thousands in inventory. Flor Rose, a single mom who owns the French Nails & Hair Club, cried as she remembered her wreck.

“If you don’t help us, we’ll be gone,” Ms. Rose said.

Mayor Tara Prupis, owner of Green Nectar Market opposite Ms Rose, suffered mud damage in her store, but did not lose any products or equipment. She informed residents that she had not asked for help to avoid any conflict. She also said that while future flooding cannot be avoided, the city is exploring mitigation plans such as bypasses. Public suggestions included the demolition of the old Futter’s shoe store that spans the downtown river and has been vacant for five years.

When the time came to vote on the proposal to form a 14-member Flood Mitigation Advisory Council, three members of the five-person All-Democratic township committee voted to table it. Maggee Miggins, a real estate agent who lost his car in the flooding, was one of three votes to be delayed. She wanted two weeks to a month for the research.

“Do you think companies have a month? Asked another member of the committee.

“This is a complete failure of our government,” said Prupis, who is seeking re-election. Two weeks later, she agreed to reduce the board from 14 to nine.

The money came from elsewhere. The day after the storm, longtime resident Wendy Missan visited HighLine Fashion and saw dresses ruined by mud. To raise funds, she coordinated a food tasting from the city’s restaurants followed by a fashion show with clothes supplied by the downtown boutiques. She called it Mudball and priced tickets at $ 85 to support storm-damaged businesses.

On October 17, the city closed Millburn Avenue for the ball. The rain fell early, but the sky finally cleared. The children sang “Always look on the bright side of life”. High school students and firefighters modeled an evening dress. Ms Missan was wearing a white dress scrambled by Ida, and residents raised wine glasses to her. In front of the empty cinema, Ms. Prupis announced that small businesses would receive the $ 220,000 from the reserve fund.

“It takes a muddy village,” Ms. Missan said.

Reminders of upcoming work mark the storefronts. Plywood covered a window that firefighters smashed to rescue workers at Playa Bowls. At Thai House, a sign hanging on the door: We Will Be Back Soon =). Several owners have advertised premises for rent.

As night fell, residents left Main Street and Mr Burwell of Garden State Hemp greeted Mr Núñez near his gallery. Mr Núñez said he was impressed with Mr Burwell’s rebuild, but Mr Burwell noted that his furnace needed to be replaced. He wanted to reopen in November, but worried about the heat.

“My customers will be bundled and my product will be frozen,” he said.

Mr. Núñez nodded.

“It’s not about coming back,” he said. “It’s about surviving afterwards.

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