Staten Island’s focus remains on Superstorm Sandy recovery

The shock and horror of Hurricane Sandy has seemed to wear off for Staten Islanders who were devastated back in October. Three months after the storm touched ground in the borough, people are working hard to get their lives back in order, and, for many, that struggle will continue throughout this year and beyond.

Sandy closed businesses — some, for good — displaced people from their homes and shifted the focus from taxes and tolls to recovery and repair.

“Right now, we’re just in the process of helping our businesses get back on their feet,” said Linda Baran, president and CEO of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce.

There were 1,000 businesses located in Zone A, the area of the city that includes all low-lying coastal areas, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation. But businesses in Zone B, and even some in Zone C, were affected by the storm as well.

Those that were affected had to replace big-ticket electrical and equipment items, inventory and wiring within their buildings. With a lack of financial assistance from insurance or FEMA, most businesses that have re-opened, or plan to, fended for themselves.

“Most of the people that are up and running again have dipped into their own pocket to do so,” Baran said. “Money is a need. There are time constraints, but businesses need capital. Cash flow is a big problem.”

For the real estate market, 2012 was a year of recovery in its own right, and while the market was trending upward as the year closed, the short- and long-term effect the storm will have on the industry is uncertain.

“It’s hard to say what (the storm-effected) area’s going to look like, market wise. It’s too soon just yet,” said Traci A. Cangiano, president of the Staten Island Board of Realtors. “We’re seeing a soft recovery and a soft flow in the areas that were affected.”

The Staten Island real estate market has been on an upswing for the past few quarters. December saw a 14.8 percent increase in closings over the year before, a 5.4 percent increase in median sales price and a 27.9 percent drop in inventory. New listings in the borough decreased by 21.5 percent, and pending sales increased 20.8 percent.

Cangiano, who has been in the real estate business for 14 years and has been a broker/owner for almost seven, said low interest rates have significantly driven the uptick in the local market. The market was moving at a fast pace coming out of summer and into the fall, but the storm “definitely stopped everything in its tracks,” she said.

Deals that were under contract had to get another inspection completed post-storm to ensure they were still OK to close, and others had to be halted altogether because of the damage.

Still, Cangiano said she expects the borough’s real estate market to bounce back nicely as the dust continues to settle.

Over at the Chamber, Baran and her team are doing their best to serve as an information resource and referral center for businesses throughout the Island. The Chamber has connected businesses with National Grid for boiler replacement grant programs, for example, and is working with the Five-Borough Chamber to receive recovery funding from TD Bank.

The Chamber and other business organizations are just beginning the conversations about how the coastline can recover from Sandy, but a lot of what happens depends on how the federal government ends up labeling the flood zones, Baran said.

“Locally, I believe that people want our neighborhoods to be built to withstand future storms,” she said. “Personally, I’m concerned that when the money comes down that, as an outer borough, we’re able to get the money.”

Aside from post-storm recovery, Baran said the Chamber is focused on educating themselves and their members about the state health exchange, which will go into effect in January 2014. New details about the program are coming down the pipeline every day, she said, so they’re working on versing themselves to better serve their members.

In addition, the Chamber will continue to press on relief from tolls — a constituency will travel to Albany for that purpose this month — and keep a keen eye on this year’s mayoral election.

But as hard as anyone tries to turn elsewhere, the main focus for Staten Island for the foreseeable future will be on the borough’s continued recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

“We’re a resilient town. When Staten Island recovers, as a whole, we’ll see a complete market recovery as well,” Cangiano said. “With everybody working together…we’re trying to put our Island back together.”