It's been more than two months since Lower Manhattan was engulfed by flood waters from Superstorm Sandy and many merchants are still without the ability to accept credit and debit cards.
"It hurt business because some people don't carry cash," says Jack Azimi, owner of Rockwell's Restaurant, a downtown staple for 45 years. Until last week, "we didn't have a telephone, so we had no communication with the outside world. We couldn't take orders for pickups and deliveries."
Some businesses that reopened without telecommunications in place turned to mobile payments to enable card acceptance. The Alliance for Downtown New York, a business association that manages the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Business Improvement District, reached out to mobile payments technology provider Square and received 100 card reading devices that it distributed to local businesses.
"We recognized the telecommunications was a huge issue for retailers and we reached out to Square," says Daria Siegel, the Downtown Alliance's assistant vice president of economic development programs. "We knew who they are and what they do and they were really on board for helping Lower Manhattan."
Square's readers plug into the headphone jack of a smartphone or tablet and use the phone's wireless data connection to handle payments. The Downtown Alliance visited merchants in person, showing them how to use the device and giving out more than 60 units.
"It was a nice option for them and a lot of retailers are keeping them as a backup option," Siegel says.
However, the Square reader wasn't an option for merchants without a smartphone, like Azimi. "You don't think of those things when everything is going right," he says.
Even larger merchants face ongoing problems. At a Burger King on Beaver Street, steps away from the famous "Charging Bull" statue at Bowling Green Park, a sign on the door reads "Verizon Line Out Cash Only."
Representatives from Burger King's corporate office declined to comment or make representatives from the local franchise available. "Unfortunately, no one is available for comment regarding your inquiry post Hurricane Sandy, as the team is currently focused on meeting the needs of guests and getting operations fully back online," a spokesperson said in an email.
Verizon, which provides services throughout Lower Manhattan, estimates that nearly 95% of its copper telecommunications infrastructure in the area—some 1.2 million pairs of copper wires—was destroyed. Flood damage was magnified by the failure of pressurized air systems intended to protect copper cables from getting wet and tanks of diesel located in buildings to power generators being comprised, allowing a mixture of saltwater and fuel to destroy the wiring.
While the affected area barely encompasses one square mile, Verizon said more than 100 tons of copper cable had to be removed from its network—a weight more than 300% heavier than all the copper in the nearby Statue of Liberty.
In addition to its efforts restoring the telecommunications infrastructure, Verizon has been providing local businesses with temporary wireless phone and Internet devices to help them conduct business.
Rather than simply replacing the damaged systems with fresh copper, Verizon has elected to upgrade Lower Manhattan's telecom infrastructure with fiber optic cables expected to provide faster data speeds and improved reliability. Verizon's plan calls for the installation of more than 5,000 miles of fiber strands in Lower Manhattan to replace the damaged copper.
"Fiber optics gives us a lot more flexibility and resiliency than older networking technologies," said Chris Kimm, Verizon global customer assurance vice president, in a press statement. "In addition, deploying a fiber optics-based network can be done much more quickly than working with copper; another key consideration that led us to make this decision. Plus fiber allows for higher speed transmissions which are especially critical to financial service businesses that tend to occupy this area of Manhattan."
Verizon added that in addition to its efforts, many building owners are reevaluating their internal systems, with some relocating communications equipment rooms from basements to higher floors.
Some buildings fared better than others. The 33-story office tower at the island's southern tip that is home to PaymentsSource parent company SourceMedia reopened three weeks after the storm—but on the ground floor of the same building, an Au Bon Pain restaurant remains wiped out. Many other businesses haven't reopened, creating ongoing hardship for not just themselves but the ATM operators that house machines in their stores.