The Lights Are On, But It's Not Business As Usual in Queens

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The lights may be back, but businesses in Northwest Queens are still trying to recover after last month’s blackout. Some were without power for more than a week and say Con’s Ed’s offer to reimburse them for spoiled food, alone, doesn’t begin to cover the costs. As WNYC’s Beth Fertig reports, they’re now debating the next steps.

REPORTER: This could have been a great summer for Ali El Sayed. His Kabab Café in Astoria got three stars in the Cheap Eats issue of New York Magazine for its Middle Eastern cuisine. And potential customers keep stopping by his tiny storefront on Steinway Street. But El Sayed has been closed ever since the power went out in Astoria last month.

EL SAYED: We’re trying very hard to open this week, we’re trying very hard and that’s the fourth week for us.

REPORTER: At the stove where El Sayed used to cook Egyptian meats and appetizers, an Argentinian handyman has been making repairs. The fire-suppression system broke down when the power went out - along with the compressors that power El Sayed’s refrigerators.

EL SAYED: In here we lost the compressors for the 2 refrigerators and the ansel system so we had to get the guys to check the ansel system for the fire again. And we had a freezer and 2 refrigerators full of food, and we had to throw all this food.

REPORTER: El Sayed estimates he’s already spent about 6 thousand dollars replacing and repairing equipment. He might have been able to open sooner, but the local electricians and repair crews are so busy working with other affected businesses he’s had to wait his turn. And he lost at least another $8,000 on food.

Down the street, at the Nile Gourmet Deli, El Sayed’s neighbor Heshem Makhlouf lost even more money. His store is open now but it’s unbearably hot inside.

MAKHLOUF: We’re scared the electric go again. EL SAYED: The electric is very weak. He’d rather his refrigerator work more than his air conditioner.

REPORTER: Makhlouf says he lost about $20,000 in meats, Middle Eastern cheeses and vegetables. El Sayed and Makhlouf say the 7 thousand dollars Con Ed has offered store owners for spoiled food is inadequate.

EL SAYED: We should get together and sue them, get a lawyer and get together. MAKHLOUF: Yep.

REPORTER: There has been a lot of talk in Queens these days about how to handle Con Edison. In the days after the blackout, the Bloomberg administration said the power company indicated it might go above its $7,000 limit. Here’s Robert Walsh, the city’s Small Business Services Commissioner, addressing the media on July 26th.

WALSH: Con Ed has told us that there will be flexibility on that and we intend to have staff working with them on the reimbursement.

REPORTER: But Con Ed’s CEO, Kevin Burke, stood by the compensation limit when pressed by reporters after a state assembly hearing last week. Though he did say community representatives would meet with customers.

BURKE: I think we’ll have to see what we can do. REPORTER: So the $7,000 is firm? Is there any wriggle room or is the $7,000 firm? BURKE: We’re looking at the $7,000 limit as a reasonable reimbursement for our commercial customers.

REPORTER: Business owners in Queens don't think that’s reasonable. Most didn’t have insurance to cover their losses, because the blackout happened off site. And it isn’t considered an Act of God like a flood.

FACCIUTO: This is a wakeup call, this is a time we have to document, put it together, use the people we vote for to come to our defense.

REPORTER: Theresa Facciuto, of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, was at a meeting this week urging local businesses to keep track of every blackout-related expense. There was also a representative from the city explaining how to apply for low interest loans. The twenty or so business owners who attended the meeting in Sunnyside appreciated these suggestions. But property owner Gerry Lederman asked the question that was on the minds of many.

LEDERMAN: One more issue and that is holding Con Ed’s feet to the fire legally?

REPORTER: The chamber’s president, John Vogt, gave his advice.

JOHN: There might be lawyers out there going around, there’s a lot of talk of class action lawsuits. What I suggest to you, I can’t tell you what to do, what I suggest is don’t sign anything. If it comes to that and I would prefer to work the system. We have the city and the state on our side working in our best interest, let’s go forward with that. Class actions tend to get drawn out.

REPORTER: One legal expert says it’s extremely difficult to sue Con Ed, because the plaintiffs would have to prove gross negligence. Patrick Tunney of The Kettle Restaurant says he’ll take the slower approach for now favored by the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce. Tunney said he lost over 6 thousand dollars in equipment and wants to make sure Con Ed is help responsible.

TUNNEY: Whatever the Chamber is doing I’ll go with them. Definitely they need to be held accountable, the equipment is 50-60 years old, you know, the money is not being put back into the system. It’s a bad scene.

REPORTER: State Assembly members have asked the State Public Service Commission to investigate whether Con Ed was at fault, by not taking care of its equipment. Lawmakers hope to raise the 7-thousand dollar limit and ensure that any money the power company spends on reimbursements does NOT come from ratepayers. But some local businesses doubt community pressure will accomplish anything. After all, said one Astoria restaurant owner, “who else can we buy our power from? There’s only one Con Edison.” For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.