By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN and TALIA WIENER
hochman@montclairlocal.news
wiener@montclairlocal.news

This story has been updated Tuesday, Sept. 7 to reflect business reopenings after damage from Ida

Neil Grabowsky has been crying a lot over the last few days.

It’s not just that he lost tens of thousands of dollars in photography and videography equipment when the overwhelming floods that consumed entire vehicles in Montclair’s North Fullerton Avenue deck rushed into his studio the night of Sept. 1.

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It’s not just that he’ll need to start over with a business he’s spent decades building. It’s not just that he fears for his relationships with clients he’s had to leave hanging, in an industry where trust is precious capital, and those who can’t get contracted jobs done often don’t get hired again.

And it’s not just that he feared for his life, trapped inside as floodwaters blocked the only entrance and exit — an experience that proved common in the storm for people at several businesses on the block.

“The actual loss has been devastating, but the reason I keep crying is because people just keep calling, and their support means so much,” Grabowsky said. “That’s the thing that’s been emotional. Not losing a bunch of stuff. The stuff will be purchased again. I have no idea how, and I have no idea when. I don’t think insurance will come through. But the thing I’m taking away is how much love and support there is.”

And while he’s reluctant to accept help for now — beyond possibly borrowing equipment from friends for upcoming gigs — the offers keep coming. By Tuesday, a GoFundMe campaign started by friends to support him had raised more than $8,000.

A friend of photographer Neil Grabowsky exits his studio through a broken window as floodwaters overwhelm the space during Ida on Sept. 1, 2021. (NEIL GRABOWSKY / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

Grabowsky is a known quantity in Montclair — a filmmaker and photographer who for a decade has shot the annual Montclair Film Festival (the organization saw its neighboring storefront devastated by the floods). He’s also the son of a landlord who owns several commercial properties, including the one where Grabowsky’s studio had been located, at 493 Bloomfield Ave., just under the former Craig Brady Fine Jewelers, and exiting out into the deck. And he’s a contributor to Montclair Local, as a freelance photographer shooting local events and providing images for the semimonthly Robin’s Nest column (Montclair Local paid Grabowsky for photos and videos associated with this story).

So perhaps it isn’t a surprise support has been so steady, after word got out about his ordeal. 

Trapped in his studio

Grabowsky had been in his studio with a friend and the friend’s father Sept. 1. He knew Ida — the storm that made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in Louisiana before drowning the Northeast in sudden and overwhelming floods — was coming, but he didn’t know how bad it would get. No one did.

Grabowsky didn’t usually work that late, but he was there “kind of on a lark,” finishing up some projects. The rain started flooding Church Street across Bloomfield Avenue. Fire hydrants were entirely underwater. Cars were washing away. Grabowsky and his friend had gone out to see how bad it was getting, when the friend turned around: “Neil, your studio.”

They rushed into an alleyway that leads to the Fullerton deck — “and there’s a raging river going on down there,” Grabowsky said. In the deck, they saw cars and SUVs entirely submerged. The waters pulled so hard they pulled off Grabowsky’s friend’s father’s belt.

The trio made their way back to the studio, a location that had always proven convenient — Grabowsky could load and unload gear right out of the deck. They started trying to protect equipment as the floodwaters rose. Three video cameras that cost $15,000. Several specialty cinematography lenses that cost $8,000 to $10,000 each. Lights. Computers. Storage.

The Fullerton deck in Montclair saw several feet of water gush in, trapping cars as Montclair was overwhelmed by rain from the remnants of Ida Wednesday night. (NEIL GRABOWSKY / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

“One of the guys who’s helping me then looks at the glass door — and realizes there’s water outside,” Grabowsky said. On footage Grabowsky shot with his cellphone, the friend is heard cursing — “we’ve got to get out of here,” he then says. They run to the front and can’t open the door. “You can immediately see the panic,” Grabowsky said.

They struggled to find something to break the glass — throwing steel equipment at it, without budging or breaking it. The water kept gushing in, eventually destroying virtually everything inside.

They finally got a window broken and climbed out, leaving the gear behind.

Grabowsky turned around before leaving: “Goodbye, studio,” he said.

Photographer Neil Grabowsky sent Montclair Local this photo of damage to his equipment suffered in Ida. (NEIL GRABOWSKY / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

A block devastated

Grabowsky was far from alone in suffering serious damage from Ida. The storm overwhelmed much of Montclair and far beyond, with many left cleaning out basements and assessing damage for days or longer. Businesses adjacent to and around the Fullerton deck — many of them on Bloomfield Avenue between North Fullerton Avenue and Park Street — may have suffered some of the worst of fit.

Bloomfield Avenue’s Samba Montclair was left with more than $50,000 in broken appliances and more than $6,000 in spoiled food after its basement flooded, owner Ilson Goncalves said Friday, two days after the storm.

The Brazilian restaurant had been closed for the previous week, undergoing a kitchen renovation. On the morning before the storm, a shipment of more than $5,000 worth of meat and $1,000 of other ingredients was delivered and stored in the basement. Since the restaurant is not in a flood zone, none of the damage will be covered by insurance, Goncalves said.

The basement of Samba Montclair flooded Wednesday night, spoiling over $6,000 worth of food. (COURTESY KAREN SCHLOSS)

A day after the floods, Samba Montclair’s PR firm started a GoFundMe campaign for the restaurant’s repairs. By Tuesday, it had raised more than $21,500.

“I didn’t want to do nothing because I feel bad asking people to help me, but they want to because they told me I always help people,” Goncalves said. “It’s amazing.”

During the past year and a half, Samba Montclair has donated more than 50 meals each week to Toni’s Kitchen, the food ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Goncalves said he’s not worried about the high cost of repairs right now — “I’m just upset because the only thing I want to do is open up again and try to survive.” That reopening came Tuesday. Total damages are more than $64,000, he said.

Samba Montclair was left with over $50,000 in broken appliances and over $6,000 in spoiled food after its basement flooded Wednesday night. (COURTESY OF ILSON GONCALVES)

It was as bad at Mesob, along the same block of Bloomfield Avenue. Six feet of water entered the basement, where the Ethiopian restaurant stores all its food, makes bread and has its refrigerators, co-owner Berekti Mengistu said Friday.

“The water came in from all directions, so the whole basement was floor to ceiling,” Mengistu said. “We’ve lost everything.”

Two employees had been in the basement 30 minutes before it flooded, and an office wall almost collapsed, right next to where co-owner Akberet Mengistu, Berekti’s sister, would have been sitting if she wasn’t out of town.

“I’m just so grateful we didn’t lose any life,” Mengistu said. “Whatever we lost, it’s going to take time, but it’s replaceable.”

Mesob remains closed until further notice, according to a Sunday Facebook post by the restaurant. Updates about its reopening will be posted on its social media accounts, the Sunday post said. 

“I hope this can get fixed because this is not the first time this is happening,” Mengistu said. “I don’t know if the town is waiting for someone to die to do an action. I’m not saying it’s preventable, but what happened should not be to this extent.”

Efi’s Gyro, at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Park Street, lost everything in the basement, after four to five feet of water flooded in the night of Sept. 1, owner Efi Mihalis’s father, George Mihalis, said Friday. Repairs will cost at least $25,000, Mihalis said.

Efi Mihalis, 19, opened Efi’s Gyro in June, her father said.

Follow breaking news about Ida’s impacts in Montclair

George Mihalis said the business was looking as Pennsylvania to source products to reopen; the business said on Instagram Saturday it had indeed reopened.

“It was her dream to open the store and serve people,” George Mihalis said. “It was very traumatizing to her to see everything go within a couple of hours, all her dreams. But I told her, ‘We’ll get it back again.’”

The Wine Guys on Bloomfield Avenue began flooding around 8:15 p.m. the night of the storm, manager Ricardo Patel said the next day. After a sewer grate clogged outside the shop, the water quickly moved into the store, he said.

“After 15 minutes, all the water was under the door,” Patel said. “I was trying to open the door to get out, but I could not get out. I was stuck inside.”

Patel said he was able to escape via a back door shared with Samba Montclair. He was unable to drive all the way home and parked at the CVS Pharmacy on Claremont Avenue, where he stayed until the flooding subsided around 2 a.m., he said.

The store’s basement flooded, and more than 500 cases of wine were ruined, Patel said.

The Wine Guys opened late on Sept. 2, Patel said Tuesday. The store is still working on repairs to the basement, Patel said. 

At Ani Ramen, set to open just days after the storm on Bloomfield Avenue right alongside the deck, flooding may be a major setback, general contractor Vincent Priore said Friday. Priore is a partner at Picco Partners Construction.

“It’s hard to tell damage right now,” Priore said. “This morning was supposed to be the final inspection,” he said Sept. 2.

With four feet of flooding in the basement, causing electrical damage and damage to restaurant equipment, and a few inches of water on the main floor, the team was focused on damage control. The contractors spent the morning ripping up protective floor coverings, Priore said.

“Hopefully the wood floor is salvageable and we can just sand it and stain it,” he said. “But I don’t know. We have to assess it, get a remediation company to confirm there’s no mold.”

One of Priore’s employees got stuck in the restaurant the night of the storm and was only able to get out once the flooding dispelled late at night, he said. Ani Ramen has not yet responded to phone and Instagram messages sent Tuesday seeking an update.

The Shade Store, right next to Ani Ramen, experienced some minor water damage from the storm, but “everything is back up and running,” Kara Marmion, senior vice president, marketing and communications, said Friday.

The Park Street YMCA, on the other side of the deck from the Bloomfield Avenue business, saw its lobby and locker rooms flooded, and its pool was affected, communications director Suzanne Broullon said in a message shared with Montclair Local via the Montclair Foundation. Waters from the deck gushed into the building, the main location of the YMCA of Montclair, as well. Three staffers were trapped in the building and spent the night there, sleeping on yoga mats in the gymnasium.

The Bar Method on Bloomfield Avenue closed initially after the storm, but classes were back on by the end of the week. Its front entrance in the Fullerton parking deck suffered extensive damage, as did the ground level, it said in a Facebook post.

“Our hearts go out to all those in our community, including our downstairs neighbors who sadly have lost everything,” the business wrote.

The YMCA of Montclair reopened Tuesday, but its locker rooms would take longer to get back into safe condition. Its Geyer Family facility on Glenridge Avenue, though, only suffered minimal damage and remained open even after the storm.

The YMCA takes donations at montclairymca.org/giving. Officials may also seek volunteer help at some point, but were still assessing their needs Friday, Anneke Demarest, the group’s chief development officer, said.

Montclair Film saw its home on Bloomfield Avenue devastated by the flood, it said on Facebook the day after the storm. Its classrooms and concourse level were badly damaged; the concourse level opens up to the Fullerton deck as well. But the organization said it was determined to still host the 10th annual Montclair Film Festival, currently scheduled for Oct. 21-30, and to reopen the shuttered Clairidge cinema in October.

Bloomfield Avenue toy store Just Kidding Around closed both Thursday and Friday of last week as staff assessed store damage, according to store Facebook posts.

“We are still in the midst of cleaning up after our extremely rude visit from Ida,” a Friday Facebook post said. “All things considered we are very lucky,  but the store still sustained damage and we lost a lot.” Just Kidding Around reopened on Saturday with limited hours, according to an Instagram post by the store. Hours may continue to be irregular, but updates will be posted on the store’s Instagram feed, it said. 

Hair 491, on Bloomfield Avenue near the corner of North Fullerton Avenue closed due to the storm but reopened Friday, according to a Facebook post by the salon. 

A TOWN INCHES TOWARD RECOVERY

Jason Gleason is executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, which represents hundreds of businesses downtown, including those in the hard-hit block near the Fullerton deck.

“We’ve been moving crisis to crisis and taking it on the chin over and over again, and everybody seems to be taking this with just a sense of resilience,” Gleason said Friday.

But with property damage and the loss of inventory and physical space, some businesses aren’t able to reopen to make any money back. And he said the “sad truth” is there were limited avenues for recovery funds.

“It’s a pretty remarkable set of circumstances that we went through the other night,” he said. “It hit hard, and it hit fast, and I don’t think we were quite prepared for what took place. But hopefully some assistance is coming rapidly.”

Gov. Phil Murphy has announced details of a proposed plan to provide grants to small businesses and nonprofit entities in the state impacted by Tropical Storm Ida. The $10 million program created by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority would give grants of $1,000 to $5,000 for short-term, immediate rent and mortgage reimbursement support. The EDA was expected to vote on the program Wednesday of this week.

In the days after the storm, Gleason said, he had been going business to business, speaking with owners and helping to clean up.

“All of the things we have gone through over the last 18 months, to continue to rise to the occasion is … pretty remarkable,” Gleason said. “For as many tears as I’ve seen over the last two days, I’ve also seen smiles and a toughness and an ability to sort of weather the storm and move forward.”

The Upper Montclair Business Association asked community members to support businesses in any way that they can, in Facebook post the morning after the storm.

“So many small businesses have been impacted by last night’s storm,” the post said. “Flooding, loss of power resulting in loss of products, inability to open today, etc.”

Paul Giordano, president of the Upper Montclair Business Association, has not responded to a voicemail left Friday.

Zina Floyd, president of the South End Village Business District and owner of Café Moso, said she doesn’t know of any damage to businesses in the South End.

“Even our plants and everything outside, nothing was blown away,” Floyd said.

Ways you can help residents, businesses suffering after Ida