Eater's Amy McKeever recently went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to talk with chefs, restaurateurs, and city representatives to learn their Hurricane Sandy stories and peer into the city's recovery. This is the third in a series of five reports exploring post-Sandy life in Atlantic City, focusing on Atlantic City's Italian mainstay Girasole.
[All photos: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
Under the threat of a mandatory evacuation and warnings from his landlord that fleeing was in his best interest, Gino Iovino decided to stay in Atlantic City when Hurricane Sandy made landfall. And now, he says, he thanks God that he did. By staying in town, Iovino just might have saved his 21-year-old restaurant Girasole.
Iovino has evacuated for a storm before. Just last year he took refuge at his restaurant in Philadelphia when Hurricane Irene hit. Even though no real damage had been done, it had been a hassle to get back into the city. He had no interest in dealing with that again. And, he figured, the storm might end up being worse wherever they went. So Iovino stayed to protect Girasole, the restaurant that has supported him and his extended family for years.
One thing to know about Girasole is that it has a sizable enclosed patio out front and expansive glass windows. As the wind and the rains beat harder against the glass on that Monday afternoon, water began to leak through the front of the restaurant and its ceiling. "It was like fountains everywhere," Iovino says.
And so Iovino, along with four other family members, got to work with buckets and a vacuum pump. They kept at it from noon on Monday until 4 a.m. the next day, dumping anywhere between 50 to 70 buckets of water and rolling up towels and napkins to soak up and dam out the flood. "We didn't give it a chance to continue on to accumulate and penetrate," he says. Finally, the wind shifted to blow on the other side of the building, rolling in over the ocean. It was just in time: Iovino doesn't think the restaurant would have made it through another day of direct beatings.
So, to a certain extent, they were successful. Girasole triumphantly reopened the very next day. But, the trouble was, no one came. Not for days. Not for months, really. Iovino says that while he was happy to get his restaurant back up and running, "We didn't know it was so devastating everywhere else."
The Losses Pile Up
As Iovino had predicted, it took days for evacuees to get back into Atlantic City thanks to the intensely blockaded streets. For four to five days, he says, they waited to get back to their homes that sat flooded and rotting with water. "Those waiting days made it worse for everybody." So no one came into Girasole in the initial days after the storm. Everyone who had remained in town was just trying to cope, Iovino says. And the National Guard blocked the road in front of Girasole for about ten days, leaving him "practically isolated."
Eventually, though, others who lived in his building — where he also lives on the 24th floor and which miraculously never lost power in the storm — came down to patronize the restaurant. Iovino sent out email blasts and posted to Facebook to tell everyone that Girasole had reopened. But, he says, people couldn't even drive in from the next town over. It took a couple of weeks for people from outside to come in for a meal.
[Screenshot: Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority]
In the meantime, the New Jersey Education Association and the League of Municipalities canceled their conventions. Though this is usually an off-peak time of year for Atlantic City businesses, November is the one month in which restaurants can pull in big numbers from the tens of thousands of people who come in for conventions. In November 2011, Atlantic City saw an influx of 60,520 conventioneers. In November 2012, there were 45 conventioneers.
Girasole's numbers reflect that dismal reality. Iovino estimates that while he usually does 3,500 covers in November — they'll get up to 200 covers a day when conventions are in town — he only did 450 covers this past November. Even in December, Girasole went from an average of 2,500 covers to just 500. Though he has managed to keep all his staff members employed, shifts were cut back from five a week to perhaps three or four. The numbers are coming back now, he says, but it hasn't reached normal.
Even worse, signs of water damage are starting to creep through Girasole's ceilings and walls. "We feel the destruction still today," he says.Iovino gives a tour of Girasole's damage.
Atlantic City Is Still Standing
Like so many others in Atlantic City, Iovino wants to set the record straight about the Atlantic City boardwalk: It was not destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. He says he walked up and down the boardwalk after hearing media reports of its destruction, discovering, "It was perfect. It was untouched." And Iovino still gets calls asking if Girasole — and Atlantic City itself — is still standing. It is.
That said, Iovino is certain Atlantic City will be able to get the word out about its resiliency and reopening in time for the big summer season. By then, he says, things should be back to normal. "Atlantic City itself, it's not going through a great period economically. So [Sandy] was really a bad blow to the city," he says, adding, "We feel confident we'll come back to normal. It's starting already. You can feel it. Just got to get the city and the casinos back. They're still suffering."
Stay tuned tomorrow for a look at how an entire community pitched in to help Cookie Till rebuild her much-loved Steve & Cookie's By the Bay.