Until last Thursday, things had started to turn around for The Carrot kosher restaurant on Harding Avenue as the Miami area had begun to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.
But the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in the early morning hours last Thursday rocked the town of Surfside to its core. Locals were suddenly unable to navigate their own neighborhoods as street closures went into place to ensure first responders could access the condominium site and conduct search and rescue missions.
One affected area was the “Surfside business district,” as it was called by Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle. These are businesses lined up between 94th and 96th streets along Harding Avenue, which includes The Carrot.
“So right before this tragedy happened, it was a pretty busy June. Usually it’s quiet time for us but after COVID, everybody was traveling; we were pretty busy,” said The Carrot’s owner Peggy Sreter. “So Thursday and Friday, and even Sunday, was very, very quiet because everything, there was no – people couldn’t get here.”
“It affected my business a lot,” Sreter added.
Street closures halt most business
While many businesses along the strip remained open, customers had trouble accessing them, often having to park and walk to visit their favorite cafes, restaurants and shops.
“This once-bustling community has shut down not only to mourn but to make way for the first responders so they can do what they need to do to service this community and of course, continue the search and rescue mission,” Eagle said at a Tuesday morning press conference.
Esther Moore, an employee at Yaffa Wigs, said Tuesday morning that the block was pretty much silent. Moore only interacted with one walk-in customer on Monday.
“I mean, everybody feels it. And the fact that they closed off the street in front just makes it much more real,” Moore said.
The uncertainty and hit to the business are making Moore anxious, she said.
“I’m worried just because I mean I see my boss, she doesn’t say anything but I see she’s anxious about it. She doesn’t want to stay in the store because she doesn’t want to see the emptiness,” Moore said.
Moore, who walks to work from her home on 92nd Street, passes police cars and blocked off roads on her way in each day.
“It’s different when you walk outside. You see it,” Moore said. “You feel it.”
Yukio Aruga, general manager at Sushi Republic said the street closures cut business in half at the restaurant, which has served Surfside since 1997.
“Basically, now we’re just doing the locals,” Aruga said. “The non-residents wouldn’t want to come around here, anyways, because it’s too much trouble for them.”
In addition to dine-in, Sushi Republic provides pick-up and delivery services. They closed Thursday because of the blocked roads, and on Friday, they halted delivery operations because they couldn’t get around.
Mendel Segal, owner of Mendel’s Backyard BBQ and Brew, said the area would usually be “hustling and bustling with cars nonstop.”
“It’s been a very, very strange weekend,” Segal said. “There’s quite a lot of people who live in the immediate area who are still coming to eat but it’s definitely quieted down some. It’s also a very, you know, strange feeling in the air.”
Owners navigate grief, returning to work
It’s not just an economic impact that business owners are facing. There’s an emotional toll as well.
They’ve recognized long-time customers among those reported dead and missing. Some were so overwhelmed by Thursday’s tragedy that it took them several days to return to work.
Martie Robbins, owner of 7th Plateau jewelry store, lives in Hollywood. But her shop has had a Surfside presence for 50 years, just blocks away from the collapse that as of Wednesday had claimed 16 lives.
“I couldn’t even come into work until yesterday,” Robbins said Tuesday. “I didn’t want to open the store, I didn’t want to, you know. Like who cares about this versus that tragedy?”
Robbins said she’s “overwhelmed” by the tragedy and spent the first four days glued to the news, watching every update. She stopped watching on Monday because it was too “heartbreaking.”
She only came into the store to pay a few bills and prepare for a jewelry show she has to attend next week. Otherwise, she would have stayed home.
“I just basically stayed here and called the community center to see what I could do to help,” Robbins said. “I’m just devastated by the whole thing. It’s just, it’s surreal.”
Robbins’ daughter, who worked at a veterinary clinic across from the jewelry shop, counted her favorite clients – a couple and their two dogs – among those who perished in the Champlain Towers South collapse.
“I feel almost guilty to open up a jewelry store and sell jewelry when people are still hoping against hope that they’ll find their loved ones,” Robbins said. “But you know, I have responsibilities to my family and the landlord, so.”
Sreter of The Carrot kosher restaurant said she has three friends who survived the collapse. But she also knows some of the missing, including one “customer and friend,” Dr. Brad Cohen. The Sreters and Cohen attend the same synagogue, The Shul of Bal Harbour.
“It’s a tragedy, a major tragedy, and especially for a small town like ours,” said Sreter’s husband, Abe. “There’s been a lot of prayer, a lot of prayers at The Shul of Bal Harbour. What else can you do in this situation? Only prayer. And donate money for the people.”
Sreter’s brother-in-law Mario Laufer lives in Surfside, near the site of the condo wreckage. He said while he’s shocked he didn’t hear anything when the apartment complex went down, his days have also been plagued by sirens.
“That’s like so sad. It reminds me of growing up in New York, you know, the ambulances every minute, two in the morning,” Laufer said. “That’s the sad part. That’s what I hate, man. Hearing the sirens on the beachside, seeing that when I walk out.”
The Sreters have personal connections to the building, too: Abe Sreter’s mother lived in Champlain Towers North and Peggy Sreter’s mother lived in Champlain Towers South. They both died before Thursday’s collapse.
Like Robbins, Peggy Sreter also stayed away from work for a few days, consumed by grief.
“It affected me mentally for a few days. I felt like so sad to be here. But then yesterday I said that’s it, you have to come back, you have to attend to your business,” Sreter said.
She added that she didn’t expect to be so affected by the tragedy. But she also understands why she was.
“First of all, it’s people’s lives. And the second thing was that it was somewhere where we carpooled; my parents lived there. My mother lived there,” Sreter said. “It’s like part of my life, you know. Part of everybody’s life, the Champlain.”
Aruga with Sushi Republic lives in North Miami. But since he’s worked in Surfside for about 20 years, he feels the city’s collective grief.
“The whole city is like, pretty much like mourning. That’s something you feel,” Aruga said. “When we came back to work Friday, it was like with a heavy heart. You feel it. That’s what I talked to my wife about. Like you know, you work today and it’s off. Of course. That’s normal. With this weather, too, it’s gloomy and sad.”
State offers financial assistance
State officials said suffering small businesses are not alone.
“With a disaster like this, it kind of spreads far and wide,” said Eagle, head of the state Department of Economic Opportunity, which has deployed a mobile unit where business owners can stop in and ask questions and share their needs for resources.
Eagle urged small business owners to visit floridadisaster.biz and to fill out a business damage assessment survey that is a “crucial” tool that the state will use to take stock of the effects being felt and what resources will be necessary to ensure financial survival.
“I don’t think anyone knows how long this is going to take,” Eagle said. “What we want to make sure people know is … while business may be affected through no fault of their own, the state’s available to help them.”
Eagle said at the press conference Wednesday morning that the Small Business Administration has accepted the state’s request to allocate additional funds and locals will be eligible for low-interest loans.
“So talking to some businesses it’s like ‘Hey, we just got through COVID, we had some hope again, we’re doing better, then this happens.’ So they’re feeling, feeling a little deflated,” Eagle said. “Right now, the focus is on families, search and rescue, and that’s the way it should be. So I don’t necessarily want to divert attention from that. I just want people to continue to be aware that there is collateral damage in situations like that and the local economy could be one of them.”
Community keeps the hope alive
Local business owners can all agree on one bright spot: the community.
Businesses are working together to get food to those in need, said Mendel, the BBQ restaurant owner. He said he’s coordinated with nearby restaurants to send food out to survivors and families.
And when customers dining inside see those platters going out, many of them offer to pick up the tab, Mendel added.
Law enforcement and first responders are feeling the love, too. Aruga said on Sunday, since business was so slow, employees packed up bento boxes and delivered them to nearby officers on behalf of the restaurant. And he’s had orders come in from community members who want to give back to local police, which Aruga is willing to do as long as delivery is walkable.
“It’s a very tight-knit community. That’s why you feel it,” Aruga said.
Moore said despite the heaviness hanging, there’s also a sense of unity.
“I’ve seen a change in people’s personality almost. Everyone is very heartfelt,” Moore said. “Everyone cares. Everyone has something to say. And you feel I guess, maybe we’re connecting more with them a little bit when they come in because we do it together.”
Maya Lora can be reached with tips or questions at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @mayaklora.