(Reuters) - As historic storm Sandy pummeled the U.S. Northeast, knocking out power and crippling transportation in New York City and beyond, the enterprising American spirit was running high - mostly for good, though sometimes leading to accusations of gouging.
Giovanni Hernandez, a tree surgeon working in affluent Millburn, New Jersey, said demand for his services had reached “madness” levels with hundreds of phone calls from people with damaged trees on their property.
“People want us to show up right away but we can’t get there because of all the power lines that are still on the ground,” said Hernandez.
Sandy was the largest storm to hit the United States in generations, killing at least 64 people and leaving millions without power. One disaster-modeling company said Sandy may have caused up to $15 billion in insured losses, and many small businesses will have suffered a lot of lost sales.
But on Wednesday - the first day after the storm when people tried to return to some kind of routine - scads of businesses owners, street corner entrepreneurs and, occasionally, good old-fashioned hucksters, were out in force to make the most of a rare business opportunity.
For some, the opportunities were natural and obvious. Bad news for homeowners is simply good news for construction firms and home supply retailers, many of whom have struggled in recent years as U.S. home prices slumped and unemployment rose.
On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Beacon Paint & Hardware, a neighborhood staple, was inundated with customers on Wednesday, with long lines to get served.
Gasoline and generators were in big demand across the region, where commuting is a fact of life. The queues at the pump were exacerbated because more than half of all gasoline service stations in the New York City area and New Jersey were shut because of depleted fuel supplies and power outages, industry officials said.
Joe Saluzzi, co-manager of Chatham, New Jersey-based equities brokerage Themis Trading, said the roads were full of tension and angst.
“It’s like Mad Max, the movie,” he said, referring to the 1979 film starring Mel Gibson that takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where fuel is at a premium.
“Everyone’s looking for gas and protecting their gas when they buy it. We were actually on line before getting an extra bunch of gas to makes sure our generator goes on. Gas and generators are gold. They’re more popular than an iPhone on release day.”
The same could be said for livery drivers in New York. Black sedans and town cars were seen darting over to crowded bus stops in Manhattan’s Inwood and Washington Heights neighborhoods to take on passengers tired of waiting for city buses, many of which were filled to capacity.
Fares, though, had usually gone up. Taxi meters weren’t always on, lower early-riser car parking fees had disappeared, and a coffee and a pastry in a small deli could cost substantially more than its normal price.
Some store owners found they didn’t need to do much to lure in customers feeling cooped up after spending hours indoors.
Carl Darwisch, 45, and his cousin, Charlie, showed up Tuesday morning at their new store, Details Designer Shoe Outlet on the Upper West Side, to survey damage.
But they noticed the streets were teeming with people, who had no work to attend and were looking for things to do.
“I think it was cabin fever,” Darwisch said from his packed store, adding that he sold more than 80 pairs of shoes.
Likewise, Orva Shoes, on East 86th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues, was bustling with customers shopping for rain boots.
Further downtown, L‘Express, a restaurant on New York’s Park Avenue at East 20th Street, set up a temporary counter outside its front door to sell $2 coffee. A sign proclaimed to passers-by: “We help you when there’s no Starbucks,” a reference to the popular coffee chain that closed its outlets during the storm.
Larger stores around the region also tried to lure in customers during and after the storm. Barney’s New York had a “Settle in with Style” sale that began at noon on Monday, just as the hurricane-force winds were starting to pick up.
In a blast e-mail ad campaign, it offered sale prices on Japanese Sencha green tea, travel backgammon sets and $500 geometric throw blankets.
Some people were clearly drowning their sorrows as business was brisk at area liquor stores, an opportunity that Brooklyn’s Gnarly Vines Wines and Spirits was quick to take advantage of. The store was open Sunday through Tuesday and saw a steady stream of customers, even during periods of high wind.
“Sunday was the busiest day of the year for us so far. Sales were almost as good as on last Christmas Eve,” said store manager Ben Rosenthal, who said the store also worked through Hurricane Irene last year. “For us storms are basically the same as major holidays.”
Reporting by William Schomberg, Caroline Valetkevich, Steven C. Johnson, Ilaina Jonas, Mirjam Donath, Patrick Flanary, Eric Platt, Edith Honan and Hoda Emam; Writing by Steven C. Johnson; Editing by David Gaffen, Martin Howell and Lisa Shumaker