10/31/2012 07:03 pm ET

Hurricane Sandy: Chinatown Black Market Emerges As Vendors Hawk Batteries, Candles, Outlets

Less than 48 hours after Hurricane Sandy wiped out all power in lower Manhattan, batteries, candles and flashlights have become as valuable to gold to some on the city's south end.

In the lower Manhattan neighborhoods of Chinatown and Two Bridges on Wednesday morning, residents lined up outside of bodegas and makeshift street stands to buy batteries, flashlights and candles. Prices were far above normal: DD batteries were $2.50 each; small flashlights were $10; candles were upwards of $4. Charging a phone from a sidewalk extension cord cost between $3 and $5.

"They're trying to make a profit at the expense of the disaster," said Thomas Liew, who was biking down Catherine Street near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge on Wednesday. "People in this neighborhood didn't take the storm seriously and were unprepared. Now they're paying for it."

Success Trading, a dollar store on Catherine Street, had set up a table in the front of its pitch-black store to sell batteries and candles. A sales clerk, who was too busy to comment, handed out DD batteries (four for $10) as a crowd of around 20 people attempted to push through the store's partially opened grate. Many of the shoppers waved dollar bills in the air.

"Usually these batteries cost 75 cents each," said Yon Lai, an orthodontist who was waiting in line at Success Trading. Lai, who lives on Long Island and runs an office near Success Trading, drove into Manhattan to bring water and supplies to his daughter, a freshman at NYU whose dorm lost power. Lai said he tried to find batteries at three other shops before coming to Catherine Street. "Someone's distress is another one's opportunity," he said with a shrug.

New York law prohibits price gouging of essential products like batteries and water, New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reminded vendors in an open letter the day before the storm. But on Wednesday morning, most of those out shopping in Chinatown and Two Bridges seemed happy that supplies were available, rather than upset about higher prices.

"The prices aren't so crazy," said Lai. "They could be a lot worse. They're not selling batteries for $5 each."

Nearby, on East Broadway, more crowds formed around extension cords that had been set up on sidewalks. One woman, Jenny Wang, said she had hoped to plug in her phone, but couldn't push through the crowd of people reaching for outlets. "At the salon they'll let you charge your phone if you pay for a $15 haircut," she said, pointing to a store next door. "It's pretty expensive. People are raising prices quick," she said.

Much of Two Bridges, a neighborhood that lies below Chinatown along Manhattan's East River, was part of "Zone A," or the portion of New York City ordered to evacuate for Hurricane Sandy by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But two days after the storm, even without power, many residents in the neighborhood appeared revived as they emerged from their homes in search of necessities. In addition to candles and batteries, many grocery stores and bodegas had opened to sell vegetables, fresh fish and baked goods, as well as water and other supplies.

Chinatown buses, which take passengers to cities like Boston and Washington, D.C., and which have offices located along Allen Street, were also up and running on Wednesday, as New Yorkers in power-deprived neighborhoods left the city.

"Whatever you can do to stay open, you do it," said Steve Tam, the owner of Natalie Bakery on the corner of nearby Forsyth and Grand Streets. Tam, who was wearing a flashlight on his head in order to navigate his kitchen, opened his restaurant on both Tuesday and Wednesday.



Chinatown Recovers From Hurricane Sandy