By John Burton
HIGHLANDS – It is still very quiet and vacant along Bay Avenue but life is returning there.
Eleven weeks after Super Storm Sandy hit, many buildings and businesses are still closed and shuttered. But, behind the emptiness and eerie stillness, there is activity as owners take on the work of repairing their businesses – with some already up and running.
“I think we’re progressing in a very positive manner,” said Carla Cefalo-Braswell, president of the Highlands Business Partnership, the local business improvement district. So far there are about 20 businesses that are open or just about to, out of the partnership’s 70 members, which include a number of seasonal businesses.
“There are very few who are not going to return,” she said.
With charitable organizations, such as the Robin Hood Foundation, offering financial support for businesses and residents, there is a future, Cefalo-Braswell said.
One of the businesses that has reopened along the borough’s Bay Avenue business district is the Welsh Farms. Its owner said his location has become more than just a convenience store in the storm’s aftermath.
“People were so thankful to us,” owner Ben Saini said, explaining that residents were happy to have the store open and operating. “It made me feel so proud and a little better” after Sandy.
Saini, who is originally from India, has owned Welsh Farm, 300 Bay Ave., for 16 years, and Katz’s Grill, 208 Bay Ave., a small luncheonette that is also open, for the past five years.
Sandy hit his businesses hard, Saini said, with the bay’s waters causing more than about 3 feet of water to flood his two locations, resulting in about $125,000 in damage to Katz’s and another $75,000 Welsh’s Farms.
Saini decided to forgo help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the federal Small Business Association, deciding that the red tape would be onerous. Instead, he said, he went directly to his banker and was able to quickly secure a loan to rebuild.
For Skip Ross, who, with his wife Donna owns and operates the Sand Witch Shop, 71 Waterwitch Ave., the issue has been dealing with the insurance company as he works to get his operation up and running.
“I’m on eternal hold,” he said, as he held a cordless phone receiver to his ear, waiting for another insurance representative to answer.
“The water was this high,” he said, reaching out to touch the restaurant’s wall, about 3 feet off of the floor. “I lost every piece of equipment I had.”
The Rosses live around the corner from their business, just off of Bay, and saw the first floor of their home flood too. “We ran from Irene,” the hurricane that came in August 2010. “We thought we would be all right,” by staying and riding out Sandy, he said, acknowledging how wrong the decision was.
“It’s defeating,” he said. “It brings you to the realization that we’re only human and Mother Nature rules.”
Ross has spent about $20,000 for new equipment, though he tried to salvage as much as he could. “I know I lost as much in product,” he said, as he worked on getting everything in shape for his reopening. He reopened the shop the weekend of Jan. 5.
Rosann Ketchow, who owns and operates Gateway Marina with her husband, has been in business at 34 Bay Ave. since 1994 and has a second location in Port Monmouth.
Gateway is operating, continuing its work on winterizing and storing boats and repairing those that were damaged along the shore, she said.
The Ketchows were in Florida when Sandy hit, but had taken some precautions before leaving. They placed computers and other equipment on high shelves and took other steps. But it wasn’t enough, Rosann Ketchow said. They got 5 feet of water in their office.
“I couldn’t believe there was this much damage,” she said. “How could water do this much damage? “We never thought it would get to be 5 feet. Nobody did.”
They returned from Florida with a generator that allowed them to warm the office as they began getting back in business, repairing and replacing what Ketchow estimated to be about $750,000 in damage to their “completely saturated” business.
Outside, there was additional damage to some boats in storage and the storage area, with the water and wind destroying a portable tent-like enclosure where mechanics did some of their work.
Some of the biggest hassles have been getting the phone and computer systems operating to allow the Ketchows to contact boat owners and vendors for much needed equipment and parts.
Despite the problems, some business owners remain hopeful.
As businesses – such as the restaurants and bars – return and again become summer destination spots, Welsh Farms owner Saini is hoping “at the end of the tunnel there’s a light.”