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The race to reopen

Sandy rebuilding complicated by questions on insurance, flood maps, federal aid

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    Brian Battaglia got his Hoboken furniture shop reopened days after Sandy, because he didn't have to wait on insurers. The reason? His shop, located just outside the old flood zone boundaries, didn't have insurance.
    Brian Battaglia got his Hoboken furniture shop reopened days after Sandy, because he didn't have to wait on insurers. The reason? His shop, located just outside the old flood zone boundaries, didn't have insurance. - (AARON HOUSTON)

    It was a mix of lucky breaks and unforeseeable circumstances that helped Brian Battaglia reopen only 10 days after Hurricane Sandy ravaged his Hoboken furniture store: The two-story masonry building was spared major structural and water damage, and the floodwaters came up 2 feet short of its mechanical systems and electrical panels, he said.

    But the store also sits just outside what was then the city's longtime flood zone, meaning its owners rarely considered buying flood insurance. And that may have eliminated the waiting game faced by many other businesses affected by the October storm.

    Not having to wait for insurance "got us open faster," said Battaglia, whose store, Battaglia's Home, sits on Willow Avenue. "We knew the second day that we were ordering dumpsters and throwing everything out."

    Being able to reopen barely a week later may have made Battaglia the envy of other merchants in the Mile Square City and around the state. But he insists his struggles of rebuilding were only just beginning at the time: Like other small-business owners, he will spend the next several months and years with the prospect of taking on new debt to help him rebuild, while grappling with the uncertainty of new flood maps and insurance regulations.

    Battaglia was approved recently for a $200,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, about half of which had been disbursed as of last week, that he planned to use to cover the losses and damage he suffered on the store's ground floor. He said the loan would help ease the post-Sandy "cash squeeze," but the additional debt will be "difficult to swallow, certainly, after three or four years of pretty poor business — which is where I think most people are."

    The city resident and former Hoboken Chamber of Commerce board president, who was also shopping for flood insurance, also is trying to make sense of the new flood zone maps proposed by the federal government and adopted by the state. It's one of many issues still facing small-business owners across New Jersey, according to advocates and other merchants.

    Getting Battaglia’s Home reopened involved taking on more debt, which its owner says will be ‘difficult to swallow.’

    Laurie Ehlbeck, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said many of her members are trying to rebuild while navigating conflicts between local land-use laws and the guidelines tied to many different federal assistance programs. For Jersey Shore-area merchants whose homes also were affected, it's double trouble.

    "You talk to any person that owns property, business or personal, and they're going to have their own strange issues that they have with compliance," Ehlbeck said.

    For those who've tried to reopen their shops quickly, such efforts also are complicated by uncertainty over how to pay for rebuilding. James Costello, owner of Ohana Grill, in Lavallette, had hoped that a mix of insurance payouts, an SBA loan and grant funds would help cover the money that he had been laying out to help deconstruct, clean and rebuild the restaurant in time for Mother's Day.

    But the reams of forms for insurance and loan applications, combined with uncertainty about what grants might be available, gave him little clarity through several months.

    "It's just frustrating for us," said Costello, whose restaurant had to be gutted after sustaining damage from 18 inches of water. "You'd almost say you're building at risk of not getting the money back."

    State and federal officials have moved recently to bring some clarity to business owners like Costello. In late April, the state received approval for its plan to spend $1.83 billion in federal recovery funds, including grants of up to $50,000 and no-interest loans of up to $5 million, for small businesses that sustained physical damage.

    And with the recent launch of a $25 million tourism marketing campaign, the state also is trying to tackle what Ehlbeck said is another key issue.

    "That's the big struggle for us right now — just sort of getting the word out that the Jersey Shore is open for business," she said. "And it's crucial to businesses that were in affected areas that people come back."

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    Joshua Burd

    Joshua Burd

    Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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