Marina Café on Great Kills Harbor in Staten Island, New York

Two years ago, Hurricane Sandy blasted the East Coast, leaving devastation and tragic loss in its path. One of the most heartening survival and renovation stories has been that of Sam and Joy Corigliano, owners of the Marina Café, located on Great Kills Harbor on New York’s Staten Island.

“We knew a storm was coming, and we made some preparation to place furniture and equipment above the floor level,” says Sam Corigliano. “But we never expected that the storm surge would break the windows in the dining room and flood the restaurant with seven feet of water.”

The Monday following the storm, the Coriglianos left their home to assess the damage at the restaurant, which is a five-minute drive away. Their home had miraculously escaped major damage, with only a couple of trees toppled on their property. But the restaurant they had been running for 32 years was little more than a shell. All that remained was a concrete floor, a frame and a roof. The tall glass wall facing the water had been crushed by what was thought to be a 27-foot tidal surge that hit the island. Equipment, tables and chairs had been thrown from the water side to the opposite side and were sitting on wet, greasy floors coated with oil from the harbor. Food that had been stored in the refrigerator and dry storage was 
scattered throughout the space. The equipment, including the compressors, had been corroded by salt water.

“It’s difficult to describe what happened when I saw 
this, but I remember my whole life flashing in front of me,” Corigliano says. “I was in shock for several days and not just for what this meant for myself, but also for the 30 people who had been working here for years.

“About the fifth or sixth day, I had come to work with my 18-year-old grandson, and I told him I thought I’d walk away and sell the property,” Corigliano adds. “I felt like my professional life was over. I had worked as an owner-operator for so many years, and maybe this was the time to get out.”

But Corigliano’s grandson strongly objected. “He said I can’t just walk away, because for more than 30 years I have built a very positive reputation, and I should rebuild. My other family members and friends agreed.”

Immediately after the storm, Corigliano, with help from his employees and neighbors, began throwing everything into 30 dumpsters. This process, which took nearly two months, had to be completed before a decontamination and mold remediation company could begin its work on what was left of the building. The restaurant — an iconic landmark and part of the Staten Island coastline — had sustained about $1 million in damage.

Soon after the storm, James Padakis, who provides foodservice design at Chef’s Corner Restaurant Equipment and Supplies, drove to Marina Café to see if he could be of assistance. “The water was so deep and damage so extensive, I couldn’t recognize the front of the building,” Padakis says. “We hit the ground running, measuring everything and talking about layouts. I had the previous designs on my computer, so I could show him what existed before Sandy.”

Rebuilding the restaurant and outside tiki bar took about a year. In order to qualify for financial assistance, the building couldn’t be raised off the ground, but the floor could be raised about eight inches. “Had we raised the building, we might have had to delay opening for another three years,” Corigliano says.

During the restaurant’s renovation, Corigliano purchased a kitchen trailer in which staff prepared a limited menu of burgers, salads and hot dogs on the outside patio. This sent a message to the community and guests that the restaurant was still in business and would return to full service after renovations were completed.

“The entire infrastructure of the restaurant could, and had to be, restored,” says Alexandra Fernandez, principal of ALX Interiors. “The design concept was to maintain an influence of sea and sky, but with a more trendy and glamorous edge.” Fernandez’s affiliation with the Marina Café dates back to 1995 when she worked with Corigliano to transform his small eatery with an outside deck into a contemporary restaurant.

On December 8, 2013, a year and two months after Sandy hit, the refurbished Marina Café opened it doors, and nearly 90 percent of the staff returned to work.