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Wondering What Hurricane Sandy Means for Red Hook's Future

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger explores a post-Sandy Red Hook.


[Greg O'Connell's waterfront tenants in Red Hook, Brooklyn, are slowly recovering from Hurricane Sandy. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

"We know it will happen again," said Greg O'Connell, looking out over the New York Harbor from a pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn. "How do we prevent the damage? What can we do?" It is early on a cold Sunday morning and O'Connell, the biggest individual property owner along Red Hook's shoreline, is working in his temporary office. Last October, Hurricane Sandy swept through the waterfront empire he spent decades assembling, ripping off doors, pushing in windows, and flooding his properties with up to seven feet of turbid seawater. His regular office was destroyed, as were many of his tenants' businesses. O'Connell now operates from a dusty pickup truck parked at the water's edge, the dashboard covered in bills and emails. 

Greg O'Connell estimates he has 15 buildings in Red Hook's Zone A, including four large Civil War era warehouses built onto waterfront piers. "All of my buildings got hit," said O'Connell, who was trapped in the neighborhood during the storm when the roads were cut off by the ocean. His properties house dozens of the businesses that make Red Hook a unique waterfront destination, including Steve's Key Lime Pie, The Waterfront Museum, BWAC, Fairway, the NY Water Taxi, Brooklyn Crab and the Red Hook Winery. Each was damaged by the storm, but the destruction has since been hidden behind closed doors. Greg O'Connell and his tenants have been working to rebuild since the floodwaters receded, while wondering what the future of Red Hook will be. 

Greg O'Connell's headquarters are in this truck, parked outside his destroyed waterfront offices. "Look at the volume of water," said O'Connell. "You are not going to stop it. I think the only thing you can do is prevention, as much as you can."  

Red Hook's Fairway Market may remain closed until March. In the meantime, O'Connell says he is working with Pratt Institute to come up with ideas for waterproofing the store. "We hope to guide new developers on what you can do," O'Connell said. 

The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy ripped these heavy doors off their hinges, flooding into the many small businesses located along O'Connell's pier at the end of Van Brunt Street.

Six feet of saltwater destroyed the printing press at Eye Graphics + Printing, causing millions of dollars in damage. "Everything can be fixed," said owner Mike Ikhmies, "but for how much? If we don't get money from the government, we are going to close down."

"It's going to happen again," said Ikhmies, as he surveyed his rusted equipment. "That's why we are waiting for the government to help us, so we can move somewhere else. Or if we stay here, we can seal it."

The main press at NY Printing & Graphics also hasn't restarted, but Mark Saunders, whose wife owns the company, said, "I'm not waiting for nobody. I'm going to keep fixing. If I had waited, I would have nothing. It's going to be 90 days soon."

Darren Palace, the general manager of The Red Hook Winery, inspects a barrel of wine fouled by sea water. "We are staying positive, but there is a danger of us not surviving," Palace said. The winery lost almost all of its 2012 and 2011 vintages. "We really know what we need to do if the storm comes back - which is move to high ground."

"We were the lucky ones," said Jeffrey Torem of the Liberty Warehouse event space.  Despite huge amounts of damage to their property, "it only took three and a half weeks to come back. Some people will never come back."

Steve's Key Lime Pie had waist high floodwaters in their bakery, and lost over 50 thousand dollars in ingredients, equipment and business. "I have a great deal of respect for the water, and that comes out of fear," said owner Steve Tarpin. "You have to respect it to know how it can deal with you. You are really helpless."

After paying a courtesy call to Steve's Key Lime Pie, FEMA Community Relations Specialist Walt Jennings said, "The outlook is very positive towards the recovery in Red Hook. Nobody is leaving."

After leasing space from Greg O'Connell for 12 years, Steve's Key Lime Pie plans to relocate to a new waterfront location in Red Hook with a different landlord, where they can create a storm resistant space. "If we get a tsunami, we'll be in trouble," said Tarpin, "but another hurricane we'll be able to deal with."

The restaurant Brooklyn Crab had very little damage to its property because of its unique design. "Maybe the crab shack is the future," said Steve Tarpin. "What if any new construction has to be elevated?"

Built on a platform 12 feet above the ground, Brooklyn Crab survived the storm relatively intact. Being floodproof, though, "definitely wasn't part of the intent," said co-owner Jamie Vipond, who rents two other spaces from Greg O'Connell. "It was about getting the line of sight to the water."

The Waterfront Museum barge survived the storm intact, despite being located in the New York Harbor.  Greg O'Connell favors the idea of turning the shallow waters off Red Hook's shore into a barrier. "You could conceivably build an island or build it up with sand," said O'Connell. "Right now it's open water." 

The piers of the New York Water Taxi, located in the manmade Erie Basin, had to be replaced after Sandy. "We've had storms over the years, noreasters, hurricanes, and we've never had a problem," said Greg O'Connell. He is now working on several small scale solutions, like increasing the rip-rap around his piers, finding better doors, and raising his power systems above the flood level.
?Nathan Kensinger
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