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A Year After East Harlem Explosion, Businesses Still Wait For Help

By Gustavo Solis | March 12, 2015 7:56am
 Businesses affected by last year's East Harlem explosion are still struggling to stay afloat.
East Harlem Explosion
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EAST HARLEM — A year after an East Harlem explosion killed eight people, leveled two buildings and halted commerce on a block, none of the local businesses affected have received funds from the state’s emergency loan program.

“This is outrageous — not a single penny has been given,” said Raphael Benavides, president of the  East Harlem Merchants Association.

“The government put aside $450,000 for 60 businesses and not even one penny has been disbursed.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the $425,000 program in August but applications weren’t available until October.

Only one of the 60 businesses affected by the March 12, 2014 explosion that killed eight people and displaced dozens has been approved for a loan, officials confirmed Wednesday.

Sahara Boutique lost $15,000 of inventory, was closed for three weeks after the blast and had to make $10,000 in repairs before reopening.  It had scaffolding outside that discouraged customers until December.

The business will be awarded $7,500 next week, according to co-owner Sabrina Saadaoui.

“It has been extremely frustrating,” said Saadaoui. “Getting this money has been a full-time job.”

She and her business partner, Kadia Ba, are behind on their rent, have seen their sales plummet and desperately need the money, she said.

When the emergency fund was announced in August, businesses needed to meet three qualifications — be registered as a business with the state, be located within a two-block radius of the blast and be open at least one day before the explosion.

But applicants ran into problems early on. For starters, the applications weren't available until October. When Saadaoui did apply, she said she had to wait until January to get an answer from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone — the organization tasked with distributing the funds.

The last three months have been a nightmare as UMEZ requests more and more documents, she said.

In one instance, UMEZ officials asked Saadaoui to take time off work and go to their offices just to let her know that she needed to submit more documents, she said.

Another time, after Saadaoui submitted more paperwork, it took UMEZ 10 days to let her know she needed even more documents, according to emails shared with DNAinfo New York.

Throughout the ordeal, the boutique struggled to regain the business they had before the explosion. Before the blast, they made about $10,000 a month in sales. After, it was around $1,000, she said.

UMEZ confirmed that only one business has been approved and will be awarded the loan next week. A spokesman did not know when other business will receive the emergency funds. 

“UMEZ continues to work closely with elected officials and state and community agencies to assist local businesses in obtaining the proper documentation in order to disburse the refunds,” spokesman Bob Liff said in a statement.

“We all remain committed to supporting East Harlem small businesses that were impacted by the explosion.”

Saadaoui and Ba both have graduate degrees. Despite their education, the process has left them scratching their heads at times, Saadaoui said.

“This is a joke,” she said.

“If we have two graduate degrees, banking and financial backgrounds and it was like this for us, how difficult is it going to be for everybody else?”

State Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, who asked the governor for an emergency fund in May, was disappointed with how long the process has taken.

“When a tragedy occurs, community institutions like UMEZ and ESD (Empire State Development Corp) should respond quickly,” he said.

“This has not happened fast enough. Let’s ensure funds get out immediately and outreach efforts are redoubled.”

While Sahara Boutique's owners fought tooth and nail for their money, other businesses have simply given up on the emergency fund.

Domingo Fernandez, the owner of Midtown Fish & Meat Market, said that between lost inventory, replacing broken equipment, repairing the store and having to stay closed for 26 days, he lost about $70,000.

The store had only been opened about a year when the explosion happened. Fernandez considered closing for good, but decided to take out close to $40,000 in loans to stay open. He will be paying off those loans for years, he said.

“It has been hard,” he said. “When you are growing a business and something like this happens you have to start over. We lost clients. Some of the people that lived in the building used to come here.”

He was optimistic when he heard about the emergency loan program in August, but when he submitted his application in the fall he was told he needed more paperwork, he said.

Discouraged, he decided to focus on keeping his business afloat rather than take time off to navigate through the application, he said.

While he has recovered some of the clients that left after the explosion, Fernandez’s sales are not what they were before last year, he said.

For Sahara Boutique it is too little too late. The $7,500 is not enough to cover the inventory they lost the day of the explosion, let alone cover the out-of-pocket expenses of keeping the boutique afloat, Saadaoui said.

To add insult to injury, one of the conditions of the loan is that the business must stay open for six months.

“At this point it may not be worth it to take the money,” Saadaoui said. “It is way too little, way too late.”