After the Flood, It’s Not Just ‘About the Coming Back’

MILLBURN, N.J. — To survive the pandemic’s waves, Kevin Cao, the owner of Thai House Restaurant, halted dine-in service, cut five staff members and kept his drunken noodles, pad thai and curry moving with curbside pickup and delivery.

Then Hurricane Ida’s remnants reached his door.

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

Unable to push the restaurant’s front door open, he told his five employees to leave everything and led them to a back room, where he climbed atop a refrigerator and pushed up ceiling tiles. They climbed into the ceiling’s crawl space and scrambled over to HighLine Fashion, a neighboring store. Mr. Cao tore open the ceiling there and descended a ladder into a restroom. They waded through chest-high water to the front door to escape.

“Good job coming through 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 figured that out.”

Kevin Cao, the owner of Thai House Restaurant, escaped flood waters by climbing through the ceiling crawl space to a neighboring business. Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

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

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

Ida was the worst storm for him yet. Mr. DeMarco, 56, grew up in Italy, came to the United States in 1988 and first visited Millburn, a town of 20,000 residents, soon after, when he was on break from working on a cruise ship. He moved to his current site in 1999. Three months later, water from Hurricane Floyd flooded his basement. In 2011, Hurricane Irene caused the river to crest once more. Six years later, his wife, Julie Randazza, a florist, moved into the building next to his; Ida devastated both businesses. He has flood insurance; she got nothing from her standard insurance. They rent and decided he would reopen while she would fulfill orders from their house’s garage.

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

Local teenagers volunteered to clean up local businesses like HighLine Fashion.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Tammi Siedlecki, the owner of HighLine Fashion, relocated to a vacant storefront and advertised “Flash Flood Sale!”Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Recovery started once the water receded around 11:30 p.m. the night of the storm. Business owners rushed over but feared stepping in manholes that had lost their covers in the water. At 3 a.m., Marlene Hawes, the 70-year-old co-owner of Buncher’s Hardware, a Millburn Avenue bulwark for a century, came down from her residence above the store to hand out shovels and pumps. At sunrise, owners found basements flooded, and that detritus like mannequins, cookware and vegetables had been carried several blocks downstream to Taylor Park. Just before noon, William Miron, the principal at Millburn High School, sent an email to students. The subject line read: Downtown Millburn — volunteers? Already, the cross country team had raced to Sneaker Factory to assist the owner. More teenagers hurried to help.

They shoveled piles of mud into wheelbarrows, pushed them to the sidewalk and dumped them there to be picked up by garbage crews. Alarms rang all day. GoFundMe pages popped up; Gov. Phil Murphy visited the next day with Tim Sullivan, the chief executive officer of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, who called the state’s small business owners “resilient as hell.” They announced a pool of $10 million in emergency funds, and business owners could apply for grants up to $5,000. Jesús Núñez, who lost his job as a corporate chef in March 2020, was working to open an art gallery in Millburn. Four days after Ida, he hosted a pop-up called “Ida Rather Be Open.”

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

“You want to run away, but I got kids to go to college,” said Mario DeMarco, the owner of the restaurant Basilico.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Stories of survival and rescue circulated. At Millburn Standard, a bar and restaurant that opened in 2020, workers were inside when the floodwaters came. Behind its building, waters carried the chef’s sport utility vehicle and several dumpsters into the culvert beneath Millburn Avenue. Firefighters rescued employees in a front-end loader.

Cliff Geissler, a builder, was in his office above Garden State Hemp, when he heard a driver honking his horn during the deluge. Joseph Siaba, the driver, had stalled after trying to motor through rising waters. Mr. Geissler, 58, pulled Mr. Siaba from his Jeep, carried him inside, fed him a chicken dinner and let him sleep on his couch.

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 location in Greenwich Village. Business was good and growing.

But when the coronavirus ravaged New York, doubt about Manhattan’s future drove Mr. Eckstein to scout locations in the suburbs. A friend building a house in Millburn recommended he look in town, and Mr. Eckstein liked the small town environment, envisioning residents working from home becoming regular customers. In August 2020, he signed a lease on a spot in front of Thai House. After converting the space, he hung a Coming Soon sign in the window. The restaurant was a week away from opening when Ida hit; it will need four months to return to that point.

“Pretty devastating, but we’re intent on making it through,” he said.

Jesús Núñez opened his art gallery on Oct. 17 for the Mudball, but is still rebuilding after the damage.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

One month after Ida, store owners who applied for relief grants from the town 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 town. But without state approval, he wrote, no additional funding would be allocated, including $220,000 from the town’s reserve fund. He encouraged applicants to speak at a township committee meeting on Oct. 5.

One by one, merchants stepped to the microphone at town hall, outlined the damage and pleaded for aid. James Rotondo, who owns Goldberg’s Famous Deli, noted that he lost $150,000 in equipment and tens of thousands in inventory. Flor Rose, a single mother who owns French Nails & Hair Club, cried as she recalled her wreckage.

“If you don’t help us, we’re going to disappear,” Ms. Rose said.

Mayor Tara Prupis, who owns Green Nectar Market across the street from Ms. Rose, had mud damage at her store but didn’t lose products or equipment. She informed residents that she did not apply for aid to avoid any conflict. She also said that while future floods could not be prevented, the town was exploring mitigation plans like bypasses. Suggestions from the public included demolishing the old Futter’s shoe shop that spans the river in downtown and has been vacant for five years.

When it came time 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 realtor who lost her car to flooding, was one of the three votes to delay. She wanted two weeks to a month for research.

“Do you think the businesses have a month?” another committee member asked.

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

Carl Burwell, proprietor at Garden State Hemp, still needs to replace his store’s furnace.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Money came from elsewhere. The day after the storm, Wendy Missan, a longtime resident, visited HighLine Fashion and saw dresses ruined by mud. To raise funds, she coordinated a tasting of foods from town eateries followed by a fashion show with clothes furnished by downtown boutiques. She called it the Mudball and priced tickets at $85 to support storm-damaged businesses.

On Oct. 17, the town closed Millburn Avenue for the ball. Rain fell early, but the sky eventually cleared. Children sang “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” High school students and firefighters modeled formal attire. Ms. Missan wore a white gown muddied 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 in the reserve fund.

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

Reminders of the work ahead dotted storefronts. Plywood covered a window that firefighters broke to rescue Playa Bowls workers. At Thai House, a sign hung on the door: We Will Be Back Soon =). Several landlords advertised space to lease.

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

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

Mr. Núñez nodded.

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

Ms. Missan coordinated a tasting of foods from town eateries followed by a fashion show with clothes furnished by downtown boutiques.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

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