LOWER MANHATTAN — On a bright afternoon recently, standing in the middle of her bustling South Street Seaport restaurant, Adriana Luque let out a deep sigh.
"It feels so good to be back," said Luque, a wide smile spreading across her face. "So good."
A year after 11 feet of Hurricane Sandy’s murky floodwaters overwhelmed popular Seaport eatery Barbarini, Luque and her husband Stefano Barbagallo — former co-owners of the beloved Italian spot — have finally opened their new restaurant, Barbalu, in the same 225 Front St. space.
“This year was hard, it was a struggle for us — for so many people,” Luque said. “But we love this place — we’re coming back and this neighborhood is coming back.”
Twelve months after Hurricane Sandy tore through Lower Manhattan, a host of shops and restaurants are still shuttered in the hard-hit South Street Seaport, but most of Downtown has slowly come back to life.
The transformation would have been hard to imagine last Oct. 29, when torrents of fast-moving water inundated the neighborhood, drowning two men and causing millions of dollars worth of damage.
Anthony Narh, a Bronx resident who worked at Empire Garage in TriBeCa, drowned inside a car at the 92 Laight St. parking garage, and Frank Suber, a 55-year-old Staten Island man, was pushed into 90 Broad St. by the powerful flood, where he was later found dead.
In the aftermath of Sandy, many Downtown residents not only struggled without heat or power — they were also shut out from their flood-damaged homes. Twenty percent of Lower Manhattan’s apartments — 5,950 units in all — were inaccessible in the days after the storm, according to a recent study from the Downtown Alliance.
Four months after Sandy, 99 percent of residents in the neighborhood had returned to their homes — but the exception was the Seaport’s Historic Front Street, a cobblestoned block between Peck Slip and Beekman Street.
Most of the 19th-century buildings along the picturesque street, where Barbalu is now up and running, suffered intense damage. The entire electrical, heating and cooling systems of many of the buildings needed to be replaced, leaving residential tenants, along with the ground-floor shops and restaurants, displaced until the summer.
But the tide has turned. Barbalu, sushi restaurant Suteishi and pet grooming spa The Salty Paw recently reopened, and others — including Nelson Blue, Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee and bar Keg No. 229 — are slated to reopen in the next coming weeks.
The business owners who returned have sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into repairing their shops — many without the benefit of flood insurance and while still wrangling for hurricane-related grants and loans from the government.
“It’s certainly cost us," said Peter O’Connell, who poured nearly $1 million into reopening Seaport favorite the Paris Cafe earlier this month, "but I think the Paris looks better than ever."
Some business owners decided to leave the low-lying Seaport and move to higher ground.
Former Barbarini co-owners Linda and Claudio Marini split from their partners, Barbagallo and Luque, and open a new restaurant, Da Claudio Ristorante e Salumeria, in the Financial District next year.
Elsewhere in Lower Manhattan, most of the companies displaced by Hurricane Sandy have managed to return, according to the Downtown Alliance.
While loud power generators and moisture-sucking machines crowded Downtown streets immediately after the storm, about 96 percent of buildings were open for business within two months of the storm, the Downtown Alliance said.
Today, all of the storm-shuttered office buildings have been repaired. Companies forced to work in other parts of the city have largely come back Downtown — and the Daily News and JPMorgan Chase are slated to reopen in 4 New York Plaza by the end of the month, according to Downtown Alliance.
Tourism initially took a hit in Lower Manhattan post-Sandy, as major draws, like the Statue of Liberty and Castle Clinton remained closed until July 4.
But Downtown still closed out 2012 with a record 11.5 million visitors, and attractions have continued to reopen this fall, including Ellis Island welcoming tourists on Monday for the first time since the storm.
Looking ahead, business owners who have managed to reopen are still concerned about the drop in foot traffic, especially in the South Street Seaport, where Pier 17 is shuttered for a redevelopment project. Sixty-six retail shops in Lower Manhattan have remained closed since the storm, and most of them are in the Seaport.
“We’re all happy to see the progress, even through its been slow-moving, and been a struggle,” said Jaqueline Goewey, owner of popular breakfast and lunch spot Made Fresh Daily, one of the few Front Street storefronts able to reopen about a month after Sandy.
“But we’re all concerned about what the next coming months, the next coming years will be like down here.”
Seaport developer Howard Hughes Corporation has brought pop-up shops, food markets and events to the neighborhood to enliven it post-Sandy, but Goewey and other business owners believe it could take years for the neighborhood to fully recover.
"We stay here because we love it here...this is our home," Goewey said. "But we know there's a lot more work to be done, and it won't be easy to really have the neighborhood back on its feet."