SMALL BUSINESS
10/30/2012 01:26 am ET

Hurricane Sandy Provides Business Opportunities In Queens

NEW YORK-- Valerie Chamberlain met her sister at the 99 cents store they own near the corner of Woodhaven Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue Monday.

The store sits near the center of what is usually one of the busiest commercial strips in Jamaica, Queens, a working-class section of New York City near JFK airport. Their plan: work most of the day or until the wind gets too loud to ignore.

Hurricanes don't really scare Chamberlain, 37, who hails from the island of Jamaica. But Hurricane Sandy, a massive tropical weather system wrapped in a nor'easter, sounds exotic and pretty frightening, she said. Chamberlain and her sister opened the store Monday because they will probably have to close it much of the rest of the week.

"When you are in business, you have no choice," Chamberlain explained. "You have to take the things that happen, the moments when people are afraid, tired, hungry, cold, what have you, and say, 'how can I make this moment profitable?'"

Around 10:30 a.m. Monday, at the corner of Woodhaven Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue, it seemed many business owners had made a similar calculation, including Popeye's, Dunkin' Donuts, East Meets West Chinese Food, and a purveyor of nearly face-sized black and white cookies called simply, "The Bakery," that was open and busy enough to ask customers to take a number.

Jamaica Avenue, a place where the mostly African-American, Caribbean and Central American immigrants who live in the area come to shop, get a hair cut, buy a lottery ticket, an international calling card, or just eat, was eerily quiet. The elevated J train, which forms a sort of metal roof over the commercial strip, stopped running Sunday night.

By late Monday, floodwaters had rendered another section of Jamaica Avenue -- about three miles South of Chamberlain's store -- impassable. Police blocked off the area's streets to cars and pedestrians as the flooding spread.

Chamberlain's husband was skeptical, though, asking her people could possibly need from a 99 cents store before a storm.

"Everything," said Mari Placencio, one of Chamberlain's customers, in Spanish, as she unloaded from her basket 10 cans of tuna, 10 cans of pineapple rings, two bags of tortilla chips, 12 packages of D batteries, a board game, a bottle of hand soap and a bundle of yellow yarn.

Placencio, 29, a Dominican immigrant, lives with her son, his father and his father's brother. She works as a nanny in Brooklyn. The men work as painters.

On Monday, Placencio, her boyfriend and his brother pooled the cash they have left before payday and had $223 to buy survival supplies. Before she left for the store, Placencio's boyfriend warned her not to get carried away. If the storm turned out to be minor and they spent everything, the whole family may not have subway fare for the rest of the week.

"If you don't have a lot of money, this is a bad time of the month for a storm," Placencio said, switching to English, then back to Spanish. "If we don't have power for three days, we're going to need things. But if the storm turns out not to be a big deal, my son's father is going to say that I overreacted and bought all the batteries in Jamaica.”

Then Placencio's cell phone rang. It was her son's father. He and his brother had taken $150 of the household hurricane fund and gone looking for one of two things -- a generator, on sale, or a sump pump to move water out of the basement of the house that they rent in South Jamaica, which has been known to flood.

"He said to buy cookies," Placencio said laughing, "candles and more batteries. All the generators and all the pumps are gone."

At the Home Depot about a mile away on Woodhaven Boulevard and Metropolitan Avenue where Placencio's boyfriend had gone looking for supplies, the wind had already made waste of the store's outdoor garden center plants and shrubs. The store had lots of plywood and customers who seemed mostly to be looking at replacement faucets, light fixtures, and power tools. Not a single kerosene lamp, sump pump, generator or D battery remained in stock.

The generators, which sell for $499 to $2,099, have been gone since Saturday, a manager said. The sump pumps, priced from $68 to $298, sold out Monday.

Deep inside the belly of the store, Marcel King, 42, stood staring at a $245 silver truck bed toolbox. King, who does small residential renovations and works on larger commercial construction projects when he can find jobs, thinks the storm may change things.

"It sounds cold," said King, "but most of the people in here at this point are contractors hoping for a lot of rain, a lot of wind and a good bit of work. They are pricing supplies."

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