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Red Hook Flooded with Volunteers, But Needs More Help

RED HOOK — Hurricane Sandy ravaged Red Hook with flood waters, but on Sunday the neighborhood was inundated with something good: droves of volunteers.

Dozens of do-gooders converged to sop up the mess in waterlogged Red Hook, where Hurricane Sandy devastated homes and some of the neighborhood's most well-known businesses, including the Fairway supermarket and other Van Brunt Street merchants that have driven the neighborhood's economic revival.

"The heart of Red Hook seems to have been washed away," said 39-year-old photographer Keri Otero, who's lived in the neighborhood for seven years. "Fairway and other businesses that have been growing the neighborhood got hit the hardest. It's heartbreaking to see at a time when [Red Hook] has been growing."

But Otero added that Red Hook residents are tough — many of them chose to live in the isolated neighborhood because of its off-the-grid feel. "Red Hook is very resilient, so I'm sure we'll bounce back," Otero said. "People who want to stay will stay and build it back."

The road to recovery will be long. Flooding reached as high as four feet in some areas, wrecking businesses like Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pie, several artists' studios in waterfront warehouses, and Added Value, the community farm across from the Ikea store. Hometown, a Van Brunt Street barbecue joint that was slated to open in April, suffered more than $20,000 in damage.

Owner Billy Durney said he plans to move forward with the business, thanks in part to volunteer efforts from the neighborhood. "One of the reasons I wanted to build down here was to give something back to this neighborhood that's just so special to me," Durney said. "With all the help I've been getting, it's just all the more reason."

Dozens of those volunteers thronged the neighborhood nonprofit Red Hook Initiative on Sunday, where some handed out food to a line of storm-struck locals, while others sorted through bags of donations.

The group has been handing out food twice a day to people who can make it to RHI headquarters at 767 Hicks St. With the help of volunteers, RHI has been delivering 300 to 400 meals a day to homebound people in NYCHA's Red Hook Houses, volunteer Shelley Bernstein said.

"They've helped everybody," said Red Hook Houses resident Rosemarie Garcia of Red Hook Initiative. "Without them, a lot of stuff wouldn't be possible." Garcia signed her mom up for meal delivery from RHI. 

Despite the outpouring of donations, Red Hook Initiative still needs more, especially cooked protein and cooked vegetables, Bernstein said. The group is also in desperate need of Chinese and Spanish translators, and nurses who can visit homebound people, Bernstein said.

At Fort Defiance restaurant on Van Brunt Street, owner St. John Frizell said he needs an electrician and licensed contractor. Flooding destroyed the restaurant's two refrigerators, four compressors, the hot water heater, and an unknown amount of food, wine and spirits, Frizell said.

Frizell, who lived in New Orleans for eight years and moved to Red Hook because it reminded him of New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood, said Hurricane Sandy made him worry about Red Hook's future.

"During Katrina people started to have conversations about whether New Orleans should exist. I hope we don't have those conversations here," Frizell said as he shovelled debris into a trash can. "However, I wonder about the future of industrial development and housing here. I don't know how any industry can be here without putting there operation on stilts, and I don't know how anyone can do housing here."

But he added, "The neighborhood will continue. It was here before we were and it will be here after us."

A few blocks away, Antonio Raffiele, owner of Red Hook stalwart bar Sunny's sat in the sun surrounded by items salvaged from the home of Sunny's bartender, Isaura Horenstein, known as "Izzi" to regulars.

Raffiele said 20 or 30 people showed up the day after Hurricane Sandy hit to help him clean up his flooded bar. He's hoping to have Sunny's up and running for a post-hurricane celebration party by Wednesday.

"I always say 'Welcome home' when patrons come [to Sunny's] and now they've proved it," Raffiele, 78, said. "Everyone has come out to help each other in the grandest fashion. We're blessed aren't we? Red Hook is a family of people."