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Big city slowly returns to bright lights after Sandy

A worker removes debris from the destroyed boardwalk in the Rockaways section of the Queens borough of New York November 17, 2012. REUTERS/E
A worker removes debris from the destroyed boardwalk in the Rockaways section of the Queens borough of New York November 17, 2012. REUTERS/E

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Few thought it would take quite so long to fully restore the dimmed lights of the famed skyline of New York City's Financial District.

At last, however, firms displaced by the flooding and power outages brought on by Superstorm Sandy seem ready to return downtown, if a little warier of the rivers and sea that surrounds them.

Water Street was more water than street when Sandy hit. Nearly three weeks later, many of the flooded office towers that line the street as it skirts the East River toward the harbor at Manhattan's southernmost tip remain closed.

Yellow caution tape still decks the doors to darkened, mucky lobbies. The usual crowds of suited office workers have vanished from the sidewalks, replaced by a handful of clean-up workers and security officers.

"It's definitely a hiccup in our revenue and a disruption of our ongoing business operations," said Lou Colasuonno, a senior managing director of FTI Strategic Communications, a PR firm specializing in crisis management.

He and about 90 other employees who usually work in a building near Water Street have had to decamp to another office owned by the firm in Midtown Manhattan. Many displaced firms have improvised in similar ways, by dispersing employees to other premises, renting temporary office space and encouraging employees to work remotely with their laptops and cellphones.

Despite the squeeze, Colasuonno said he was making the most of seeing colleagues he might normally only email. Echoing others, he also pointed out that the Financial District weathered a far graver disaster in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

"It's going to take more than a couple of feet of water to chase New Yorkers out of Manhattan," Colasuonno said of the record-breaking surges caused by Sandy.

A number of Wall Street institutions, including the New York Stock Exchange and some major banking firms, were able to resume business as soon as power was restored after the October 29 storm.

But many buildings in low-lying areas suffered longer-lasting damage to electrical and heating infrastructure. A report earlier this week from commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle showed about 30 percent of the area's rentable office space still was closed because of the storm.

CUSTOMERS GONE

As more buildings come back to life each day, the majority of displaced businesses were expecting to return home before November was out, although employees of the New York Daily News, based in one of the last buildings before Manhattan gives way to the sea, have been warned it may be nearly a year before they can return to their old newsroom.

John Wheeler, who heads the Jones Lang LaSalle's Lower Manhattan office, said there was little sign that businesses that got soaked would consider moving up Manhattan or elsewhere to higher ground.

"The attributes that lead to Lower Manhattan's resurgence are intact," he said, referring to office space that was on average around $20 to $25 cheaper per square foot compared to Midtown Manhattan.

In what is increasingly looking like a design flaw to some, electrical infrastructure and other things that should never get wet are commonly installed in building's basements. It's an issue several downtown landlords are planning to address, Wheeler said.

"When you're touring tenants in the future, this question could well be asked, and you'll want to be able to say, ‘Oh, yes, we're doing x, y, z to avoid an outage,'" he said.

"Everybody recognizes this is a freak occurrence," said Andrew Willis, a spokesman for Brookfield Asset Management, a building management company that was able to reopen five of its six downtown office buildings within a week of the storm. "Our tenants have maintained their faith in lower Manhattan."

Still, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that 100-year storms seem to be turning into more regular events.

"Now what we're doing is assuming we will get flooded," Bob Benmosche, the CEO of insurance firm AIG, said in an interview. The firm's headquarters in the Financial District has been closed since the storm, but was expected to reopen to employees on November 19.

"We are moving our phone switches and other electrical switches from the basement to the second floor so that we're well above any floodplain whatsoever," Benmosche said, adding that they are also looking to see where in their building they might store emergency generator fuel.

In the end, it may be that the neighborhood food carts and washed-out cafes that cook office workers' lunches and who cannot work remotely will have endured the heaviest blow.

Standing by his hot dog cart, Marino Mastoras was one of the few signs of life at a Water Street intersection, which has been his home base for more than two decades. His earnings have been halved, and he is desperate for his customers to return.

"After that happened, all my steady customers are out, only construction people come," he said. Shifting his cart elsewhere was more complicated than it might sound, he said, and besides, there was a principle at stake: "People know I'm here. That's very important to me."

(Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Bill Trott)

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