Immigrants and the Blackout

By Larry Tung

During the blackout, Moaad Alsaedi worked around the clock at the 24-hour Happiness Deli on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side.

"We were one of the few places that were still open. It was really crowded the whole time," he said.

Has anybody else notice that most of the stores that stayed open throughout the blackout on August 14th and 15th were in fact owned or run by immigrants?

One reason for this might be very simple -- they are used to it.

Alsaedi, 19 years old, moved to New York eight years ago from Yemen. "In Yemen," he said, " a blackout is something normal. It happens every day. We got used to it."

Many immigrants are no strangers to life with limited electricity. But they are in New York now, with different expectations and new investments, and they were hit as hard as anybody else.

Even Rubi Ramos, a native of Mexico who bought a deli on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn with her husband a little over a year ago, was forced to throw out almost everything in the refrigerator the next day, at a loss of at least $1,000.

In Flushing, which is one of the areas that first got power back on, Jane Zheng, a cashier at Szechuan Gourmet Restaurant, said many horrible things went through her mind when the blackout happened.

"9/11 was the first thing that came to my mind because it happened so suddenly," Zheng said. She said power and water rationing in her native Szechuan Province in southwestern China was common, but people are always given advance notice.

But not everyone was as panicked as Zheng. Sung Mi Kang, a devoted Christian from Seoul, Korea, and an assistant manager at Jang Tuh Restaurant, a 24-hour Korean barbecue restaurant, said she was calmly waiting for the power to return.

"I believe in Jesus," Kang said, adding that she never experienced any major blackout in Korea. "I thought it was an accident and did not think about the terrorists at all."

The blackout, the biggest in U.S. history, reportedly caused a total loss of more than $1 billion. Many small business owners put the blame on Con Edison, the power company that serves 3.1 million in the Metropolitan area, for their loss and are seeking compensation. Two suits have been filed against Con Edison by a group of residents in Queens and a group of New York restaurants for property loss within a week after the blackout.

"We are still waiting for compensation from Con Edison, my insurance company and whoever is responsible for it," Alsaedi said, adding that they had to discard all dairy products, cold cuts and ice cream. "We hope to get a response soon."

However, Chris Olert, a Con Edison spokesman, said that the company did not cause the blackout, and under state regulations, it cannot be held responsible for legal claims stemming from food spoilage and other inconveniences.

On the other hand, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced on August 23 that the agency will provide up to $5 million in federal emergency funds for New York to help cover part of the loss in the statewide blackout. The city's Department of Small Business Services is also working on measures to provide similar assistance.

But many immigrant business owners are handling it the way many immigrants do in similar situations: to just let it go and put it behind them.

Despite losing almost everything in the freezer, Kang said she thanked god when the power went back on and that she is not aware of any government assistance and would not seek compensation.

Zheng, the cashier in Flushing, was sympathetic and said everybody suffered from the blackout.

"Nobody wanted the blackout," Zheng said. "Besides, our loss is relatively minor."

But they do have a complaint that the blackout lasted for so long, from 16 hours in Flushing to 29 hours on the Lower East Side and Chinatown.

" I was just shocked that it took that long to get everything back on," said David Seid, an assistant manager at Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. "Usually in this neighborhood the power comes back a lot quicker because they try to keep the Wall Street area going. The ice cream store was closed for a day and half."

"I always thought Americans are very efficient and capable," Zheng said. "They were too slow this time."

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