The Big One

by Sarah Kinbar

Cate Scaglione/Je Revele

Devastation in New Jersey

January 09, 2013

A photographer’s worst nightmare—the loss of huge amounts of work, or the equipment that makes that work possible—has been a reality for many shooters living and working in the parts of New York and New Jersey that were terribly impacted by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The rebuilding effort—which includes tangling with insurance adjustors and finding the right contractors—is the next hurdle for those affected.

Shortly after the storm, Johnny Chin of Staten Island, New York (he lives close to Oakwood Beach), discovered that all his pre-digital prints had been destroyed.

“What I lost, which has irreplaceable value, are the photos from the weddings I shot back in the days when everything was on film. Those albums and photos are lost to water damage, including my own wedding photos. Gear-wise, I lost my older camera bodies and lenses, and extra backdrops and other accessories like that,” he says.

Just before the storm surge, Chin was able to move all of his most current gear upstairs so it didn’t get damaged. With his home office out of commission, he’s now working out of his upstairs living room.

Photo by Marianne Nicoletti

Of all the rooms in her house, Nicoletti's office was the hardest hit, evidenced by the mold that quickly grew on and in the walls. 

Marianne Nicoletti, a portrait and wedding photographer, lost the contents of her home office, which mainly included her backdrops and lighting. Of all the rooms in her house, the office was the hardest hit, evidenced by the mold that quickly grew on and in the walls. 

Her little town of Chadwick Island in Lavallette on the Jersey shore (a sweet, beachy escape) was transformed into a wasteland overnight thanks to Sandy. Thankfully, the rebuilding has begun, some say it’s at a decent clip.  

“They let us back in after three weeks, with police escorts from the Tom’s River Police Department. The security was amazing—troopers from all over the East Coast used their cars to block off streets before they brought in the dividers. Our escorts were very informative and told us that as bad as things looked, so much had been done already in an effort to restore utilities and haul away trash and waste,” says the recently-engaged Nicoletti, who is currently staying with her future in-laws.

“For security reasons, I wasn’t allowed to roam the neighborhood and take pictures, I had to stay in and around my house. It smelled so bad in the house; it was overwhelming. You could see things had been floating around, and there is a 16-inch water line on the walls. Thankfully I had put my computer up on a high table in the kitchen, so those files were safe, and I had taken my external hard drives with me when I evacuated.”

Nicoletti filed a claim with Allstate the week of the storm, and once they were allowed in, the adjusters came to assess the situation and take pictures. “Getting hold of them to set that appointment was very difficult, and now we’re waiting to find out what they’ll cover,” she says.

Photo by Marianne Nicoletti

Boxes of photo equipment and photographic paper in Nicoletti's house were ruined as well. 

Sports photographer Al Bello of Merrick, New York (on Long Island), dealt with major water damage to the entire first floor of his house, including his office, as a result of Hurricane Irene in 2011. “I was in Brazil for Irene, so I didn’t have a chance to prepare the way I would have liked to. I lost my lights, some old prints and a lot of slides,” he says. 

Bello had just completed the renovation of his house when Sandy struck. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It was only six months since we finally repaired the house, and now it’s destroyed again.”

But Bello had learned some things during Irene’s aftermath that helped him prepare for another potential storm and awoke him to the realities of dealing with insurance adjusters.

“I learned that insurance companies don’t take care of you like they should. After Irene, I found out that I was basically on my own to restore my house, because it’s an older home. For example, they put a low value on the floors I’d had for many years, which didn’t cover the cost of replacing them with new floors,” says Bello. “Also, I realized that you have to have a policy that covers the contents of your home, which I didn’t have last time, but do have now.”

After Irene, Bello replaced all the floors in his house with tile—a smart move, because the tile survived Sandy. He also moved the electrical outlets higher up on the wall so that a flood would cause less damage to the electrical system. Hoping to protect the boiler, washer and dryer, he elevated those appliances on cement blocks. Unfortunately, the flooding was so high—3 ½ feet compared to Irene’s 1 ½—that they have to be replaced anyway.

Bello was at home when the storm surge came rolling down his street, and while he would have liked to have gotten more photos, he was hesitant about exposing himself to sewage: “One of my contractors got an infection after Irene because of the sewage. That landed him in the hospital for nine days and after all this time his leg is still red.”

So, Bello’s photos from that day are limited to the ones he shot down the stairs from the second floor.

Bello points out that whomever you buy your flood insurance through, most flood insurance for residential properties is provided by the National Flood Insurance Program, and therefore underwritten by the government. Private insurers only manage the program, so the coverage you get from one private insurer to the next shouldn’t vary. The differences can be found in things like customer service and the quality of adjustors. Chin, whose flood insurance is through Liberty Mutual, was horrified when adjusters had to come back for a second visit, claiming to have lost the first set of photos.

“They also want photos of every item discarded and a close-up photo of the serial number, all itemized with purchase prices, depreciated value, and replacement costs of an equivalent ‘used’ item,” says Chin. “After all that is submitted, then will they consider how much of it they will cover. It is just unbelievable how they are doing everything to not pay out.” 

Despite the range of flood insurance managers, the photographers we’ve spoken with aren’t pleased with the difficulty of setting up appointments with adjustors at any of the insurance companies, and as of the writing of this article, most are still waiting for their assessments.

The concentric rings of Sandy’s impact spread much further for photographers than the loss of files and equipment: whole office buildings and home studios are uninhabitable, forcing the notably innovative people that make up this profession to be ever more creative with how they accomplish their work. Then there are the bookings that have changed because of complications at venues (“The wedding has been pushed back from January to May”), and the cancellations (“We need to take another look at our budgets and business plans and see what resources we can direct to that ad campaign”).

Portrait and fine-art photographer Natalie Licini of Westerleigh, New York (on Staten Island), had to close up shop for two weeks due to the storm, which resulted in production delays. She has seen cancelled bookings and conservative spending, which she expects to last for two or three months. She acknowledges that her down time will be shorter than her friends and fellow photographers whose losses include home offices and studios. For many, days and hours are now spent tearing out dry wall, ripping up carpet, cataloging damaged items, and waiting for the assessment.

Still, many photographers are trying to remain positive. Says Licini: “Photographers greatly affected can work in the New York metro area outside of their studios and favorite locations temporarily as we rebuild. My business partner Cate [Scaglione] and I photograph clients at the Jersey Shore each summer—we’re not sure what to expect next summer, but we hope to find new parks and locations for photo shoots. Since Sandy, our revenue has decreased at the studio, but we’re putting together new marketing campaigns to boost revenue in the coming months. Think outside the box and launch for your business. And in the meantime, let’s stick together.”

Photo by Natalie Licini/Je Revele

A disturbing sight on Staten Island. 

Sarah Kinbar writes about design and photography. She is the former editor of American Photo and Garden Design magazines.

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