Inside the Gowanus Canal Evacuation Zone

Many of the blocks along the shores of the toxic Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn are designated as part of the

Gowanus Canal floodwaters at the dead end on Second Street earlier this evening. (Photo: Hunter Walker)

Many of the blocks along the shores of the toxic Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn are designated as part of the mandatory Hurricane Sandy evacuation Zone A. Though the city gave orders for residents of this area to leave their homes starting at 7 p.m., we spotted quite a few people out on the streets when we walked into the zone earlier this evening, including curious gawkers, emergency workers and neighbors who are becoming increasingly fearful that the notoriously polluted canal could overflow. 

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The Observer entered Zone A at Carroll and Bond Streets shortly after 8 p.m. Though the businesses and homes occupying the old brick industrial buildings on that block were all shuttered, we spotted several people walking onto the Carroll Street Bridge to take a look at the state of the canal.

“It is so crazy high!” one little boy looking at the water said to his mother.

Indeed, it was high tide, and with the early force of the storm surge, the waters of the legendarily contaminated canal were just about a foot or two below the walls of its west bank and flowing unusually quickly.

Behezad Amiri, who said his home is about a half block east of the bridge past Nevins Street, the border between Zone A and Zone B, was watching the waters too. He said he had also come out to see the canal during the height of Hurricane Irene last year and pointed to where the water stopped during that storm.

“Hurricane Irene, see where it is right now? It’s blocking the sewer,” Mr. Amiri said gesturing toward the canal’s high water mark. “It was maybe about a foot up from there at the worst point of Irene, so this is already a little–this looks pretty high comparably.”

Though Mr. Amiri said he was worried to see the canal at such a high point before the storm and any heavy rains had arrived, but he told us he planned to “hang out at home” because his house was a block uphill from the evacuation zone. Walking with Mr. Amiri up Carroll Street, we were surprised to see a large crowd eating and watching the World Series in Monte’s, a local Italian restaurant that opened more than a century ago and supposedly served as a hangout for the Rat Pack. On Third Avenue, one block from the border of the evacuation zone, there were also good-sized crowds at a members-only social club where men played pool inside and at the clam shack-slash-bar Littleneck.

When we came back to Littleneck about an hour later, the were only a few people seated at the bar.

“It kind of cleared out now,” said the owner of the clam shack, Aaron Lefkove. “We’re still open technically for another 45 minutes, but I guess since there’s no more customers, we’re going to clean up and go home.”

Despite his plans for an early close and the threat of the storm, Mr. Lefkove said the restaurant had its standard number of diners.

“This is like a typical Sunday night, actually,” he told us, before adding, “It’s odd that everybody went home at 9 o’clock. Like clockwork, everybody got out of here.”

As we spoke, a couple who said they lived across the street came in and asked whether Mr. Lefkove still had any of the lobster cakes they’d apparently heard raves about. He told them they were in luck: he had one order left. We asked him whether he planned to open the restaurant tomorrow and he replied that it was “to be determined.” Mr. Lefkove went on to explain he was hesitant to close his doors despite the dire warnings from city officials because he sees City Hall’s strong response to the storm to an attempt avoid the heavy criticism Mayor Michael Bloomberg faced after the blizzard that blasted the five boroughs in 2010.

“After the blizzard, where it was a complete shitstorm and the Bloomberg administration came under so much fire, any time there’s any sort of inclement weather, the threat of it, they just batten down the hatches pre-emptively,” said Mr. Lefkove. “I could be eating my words this time Tuesday, but, you know, I’m hoping for the best.”

About a quarter of a mile away, back in Zone A on Second Street, which dead ends right at the edge of the canal, the situation did not look good. A police car was parked at the end of the block keeping people away, because the waters were overflowing and creeping about 15 feet up the block. Though this was the only area where we saw flooding, it was also the only area in the evacuation zone where we found residents still in their homes in spite of the order to vacate.

A man named Fred wearing an Obama button and glasses answered the door of a sandbagged building at the end of the block. He said he was there helping his friend, Eddie, secure the house for the storm.

“I’m not evacuating, period,” Eddie said explaining that he had a large number of cats. “I can’t go anywhere. Where am I going to go?”

We asked whether he was aware the city is permitting pets to stay with their owners in storm shelters. Eddie responded that he simply had too many animals to take care of.

“Eight total,” said Eddie. “I’m a foster rescuer, neighborhood cats, so I also have kittens and I’m just going to bring them into a hallway upstairs.”

The two men said they could stay with friends further uphill from the canal if things got too bad. They also knew some people nearby who would be willing to take “a few” of the cats.

“We’re concerned, of course, we’re not being frivolous, but it’s difficult when you have cats to worry about,” Fred said. “We’re just going to kind of play it by ear.”

Eddie told us they expected to be up all night getting the house ready for flooding.

“I don’t care about the furniture, I just want to protect the animals and my paintings. That’s what really matters.”

After “20 years” living on the block, Eddie said he had seen the water flood this much before, “but never like this without the rain.”

“This is scary,” said Eddie. “It’s going to come up here, I already know it. I feel it.”

Like the rest of the area’s residents, Fred and Eddie will have to see whether the storm’s coming range and the predicted combined attack of the full surge and high tide tomorrow yield even further flooding. When we parted ways with the pair, we said we would come by to check on them as the storm progressed and looked forward to seeing them again.

“Maybe with a bathing suit!” Eddie quipped.

Inside the Gowanus Canal Evacuation Zone