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After Sandy: Year-Round Businesses Struggling to Reopen

Source: USA Today

Posted on 25 Jan 2013 by Neilson

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Hurricane Sandy and businessesAlmost three months after superstorm Sandy, dozens of business owners are struggling to reopen while others say patrons don't know they're alive.

Dealing with insurance companies, lost income, unemployment claims and rebuilding costs, Marilyn Schlossbach doesn't know how or when she will reopen her oceanfront businesses here.

"The downside to this storm is the lack of light shined on the business community and how the business community affects everything going forward," said Schlossbach, who owns Langosta Lounge, Pop's Garage and Lightly Salted Surf Mercado. "People seem to have this thing in their head that we are only seasonal businesses."

Many business owners are reporting tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue since the storm with little or no help from insurance companies.

The storm also put a slew of employees out of work. Some full-time executive chefs at Langosta Lounge moved on to new jobs, Schlossbach said.

New Jersey businesses made about 36,000 commercial property damage claims related to Sandy with $255.6 million in losses paid, said Marshall McKnight, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance. Business-interruption claims totaled 12,000 with $53.4 million paid.

The state has worked with businesses to investigate delays, denials and unsatisfactory settlements from insurance companies.

"We have had some success in expediting matters," McKnight said.

Experts say the insurance claim process has stalled rebuilding plans across New Jersey. Dealing with documents and client representatives can be daunting, said Ronald Cook, director of the Small Business Institute at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

"Insurance companies themselves just seem to be completely overwhelmed," Cook said. "They don't have enough horsepower to handle the sheer volume of claims."

Insurance providers are working around the clock to settle claims quickly, said Chuck Leitgeb, vice president of the Insurance Council of New Jersey. However, most oceanfront businesses flooded, so the National Flood Insurance Program would pay their claims instead of their insurance companies.

Insurance companies act as a liaison, Leitgeb said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering low interest loans for businesses affected by Sandy. FEMA partnered with the Small Business Administration and approved $30 million in low-interest loans to businesses, officials say.

Cost to rebuild

But it's been a painful recovery for business owners like Christopher Wood in downtown Sea Bright, N.J. On Wednesday, he reopened Woody's Ocean Grille after a $400,000 rebuilding project. His insurance provider kicked in $150,000, and he is awaiting response on more money.

But if that doesn't come soon, he'll be paying construction bills out of pocket or getting a small-business loan.

"We just opened that restaurant 15 months ago," he said. "The lost revenue, that hurts. It's an uncomfortable thing."

Vendors also get hit in the crossfire. Restaurants often have agreements with vendors who depend on that income.

Wood said his previous closure affected at least six food vendors, five liquor companies and four beer distributors.

Schlossbach said she pays her vendors each time she gets financial assistance.

Cubacan and Stella Marina in Asbury Park are wrapping up massive rebuilding projects. The storm surge flooded both restaurants, leaving about $100,000 in damage.

The landlord's insurance company and personal savings have covered some costs, said Joe Cetrulo, who owns both restaurants. His insurance provider is lagging.

Cetrulo said his furniture and equipment should be covered, but the insurance company argues he has no flood insurance.

"We are fighting it," he said. "It's just a back-and-forth argument with them."

Challenging times

But waiting on insurance money could cost entrepreneurs their businesses, Cook said.

"If you are unable to be in business and have a presence in the marketplace, there is always a risk that your regulars will be going elsewhere," he said.

Superstorm Sandy came at a fragile time for small businesses still recovering from the recession, Cook said.

"You're already weakened, and now you are going to be suffering more," he said. "At the same time, you are now rebuilding and trying to recover on a reduced cash flow."

Schlossbach is struggling to make ends meet. She and her husband have a mortgage and newborn twins with no salary from their most profitable business, Langosta Lounge.

Schlossbach was denied unemployment because she is a corporate officer. Her husband was approved.

"The bills don't stop on certain things just because the rest of our world stops," she said.

Schlossbach is raising money through the crowdfunding site to purchase new chairs for Langosta Lounge. So far, customers have donated $10,000, she said.

Other Jersey Shore businesses owners also are using the website to raise money, Schlossbach said.

"I think everyone is getting really frustrated and nervous, so we decided to take matters in our own hands."

Desolate towns

Reopened businesses also are in a tough spot. Owners say areas like the Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., business district and Asbury Park boardwalk are desolate.

"It's very, very slow," said Cathy Pusczko, owner of Everybody's General Store in Point Pleasant Beach. "It seems like everything is at a definite standstill."

Her gift shop didn't earn the thousands of dollars it usually makes during the holidays. Pusczko thinks her customers still are recovering or don't know the business district is open.

"A lot of people just think there is no way we are open," said owner Robert Ilvento of the Silver Ball Museum arcade in Asbury Park.

Cetrulo estimates his restaurants have lost nearly $500,000 in revenue since November. Though the eateries are more profitable in the summer, winter crowds still dine on weekends.

Business owners say their only hope is a strong tourism season that offsets losses.

"I am pretty optimistic about this coming year," said Dennis Tafuri, general manager of Cubacan and Stella Marina. "People are going to come in droves to support the Shore."

By the numbers

  • 36,000: Sandy-related commercial property damage claims made by businesses
  • $255.6 million: Damage claim losses paid to businesses
  • 12,000: Business interruption claims from Sandy
  • $53.4 million: Interruption claims paid to businesses