Photo: Joy Yagid

In the Hurricane Irene lottery, Millburn, NJ drew a very unlucky number. When the Rahway River crested its banks, water surged into the downtown business area, causing widespread and sometimes severe property destruction.

But business owners and residents are handling the situation with grace, spirit and no small amount of good humor.

“We had two feet of water in the dining room, and the basement was completely full,” said Tinga Taqueria owner Dana Crowe, taking a break from clean up outside the restaurant.

“The counters flipped upside down, and the door blew out from the force of the water.  The floor was completely ripped up,” said Crowe.  He said it would be at least three or four weeks before he could make repairs and reopen.

He estimates that the repair costs will be in the neighborhood of $30,000 — not counting the $50,000-80,000 per month in lost business revenues.  But by far his biggest concern is for the welfare of his 20 employees.

Photo: Joy Yagid

“I can put some of them to work at our Montclair restaurant, but the Westfield location is out of power at the moment.”

Tinga is located in the building that was hardest hit by the storm; other occupants are the former Sono, a Japanese eatery that closed last year, Red Mango and Bagel Chateau.

Sono will have to be almost completely rebuilt inside.  Fortunately, new owners hadn’t commenced construction work for their future Italian brick-oven pizza place, Locali.  The spot is slated to open in October or November.

Michael Trond, property manager for Investors Holding, which owns the affected building, explained why Millburn bore the brunt of the storm.

“We are located just off the reservation and all the water from there and from nearby streets flows here.  It all backs up under the Essex Street bridge, and once it crested the retaining walls had no effect.”

Those walls were reinforced when Hurricane Floyd hit the town in 1999, causing even more severe destruction than Irene.

“We have done a lot of work post-Floyd to make the town safer, but we are limited by the Army Corps of Engineers in what we can do,” said Lt. Peter T. Eakley, deputy emergency management coordinator for the Township of Millburn Police Department.  “If we build the retaining wall too high, towns further down the river like Cranford could get knocked out” by flooding from future storms.

Eakley said the recovery effort was going well and that power — which was sporadically out — would be restored within the next few days.

“We are doing our best with the recovery,” Eakley said, “but it will take some time.”

Eakley was taking a break from an on-camera interview with a reporter from CNN, which has established a beachhead in the town since the storm and has been closely following the recovery efforts.

Across the street at Millburn Deli, employees were busy mopping up and sanitizing.  The scent of bleach was strong.  Owner Andrew Morgan was carrying in pizzas for lunch for workers.

“The whole basement was lost, and we had two inches of mud on the ground floor,” said Morgan.  “We are cleaning, sterilizing and rebuilding the shelving.”

Viola Morgan, a family member who was pitching in, said, “We are still pumping out the basement.  Half these guys here have been up all night with no sleep.  Plus our phone is ringing off the hook” with customers checking on when the deli will reopen.  According to Andrew Morgan, that should be by Friday.

Over at Basilico, owner Angelo Delbecchi said the restaurant had a total of 7 feet of water in the basement.  “About the same as with Floyd,” said Delbecchi, who put the reopening date tentatively at the end of this week or beginning of next week.

Futter’s Shoe Store, which also backs up to the river, needed to replace a furnace and hot water heater, as well as replace carpeting.  Owner Richard Futter said he planned to reopen tomorrow, Tuesday.

Starbucks was closed due to the storm, as was Rockin’ Joe’s and the Millburn Clearview Cinemas.  At Curate, workers were mopping up and salvaging merchandise.  Owner Debra Comitta said she was unsure of when she would be able to reopen.

“I’m sorry I can’t talk right now,” a weary but smiling Comitta said politely.  She pointed to a Millburn police officer and fire official who had just arrived to provide some vital clean-up information: “These guys have priority right now.”

Story by Carolyn Maynard-Parisi. Photos by Joy Yagid.