A year after New York's first and arguably only Kiwi-themed bar and restaurant was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, its owner is still working on rebuilding.
Pauli Morgan, a Nelson native who has lived in the US for 23 years, said he hoped to reopen Nelson Blue in about five weeks. The bar was one of many small businesses in Lower Manhattan destroyed by the hurricane, one of the most powerful and destructive storms to ever hit the mainland United States.
"It's crazy," Morgan, 53, told Fairfax Media by telephone.
"It's hard to believe it was a year ago, almost to the day."
On Monday, October 29, 2012, Morgan and his girlfriend had ignored a mandatory evacuation order and joined a few others at a regular customer's apartment near the bar in the low-lying South Street Seaport section of Manhattan. Sipping red wine, they waited for the hurricane to hit.
He had been optimistic, sandbagging the gastropub while leaving a sign on the door that read: "If we don't get struck by the hurricane we'll be open tomorrow."
But the power went out about 6.45pm. A little later, Morgan, standing in the dark on the third-floor Beekman Street apartment, could see water coursing up the street.
"Hey, come look at this," he said, summoning his mates.
By the time they came back to the window the water was all the way up to Front Street, the street Nelson Blue was on.
"We've got to go and we've got to go right now!" his girlfriend yelled, concerned about her cat and two labradors in a nearby apartment.
By the time they got outside the water was at their shins. By the time they had run 100 metres it was at their waists.
It wasn't river water or rainwater - it was "just nasty, nasty water" filled with petrol and sewage, Morgan said.
Finally they had reached high ground and had "one of those New York moments" when a police officer ordered them out of the water.
"Are you sure we can't play around in it a few more minutes," Morgan thought about cheekily asking back, glad to get out of the brackish water.
"It was just unbelievable - the speed and ferocity at which it came in."
But while they were both safe from a storm that killed 285 nationally and 44 in the city, "I knew at that stage we were f*****" as far as the bar was concerned".
Morgan returned the next day to inspect the damage and was shocked at what he found.
"It was catastrophic, mate," Morgan said.
"You don't know what water can do until you see it pick up a 1000-pound fridge and tip it over so you can't open it. Beer kegs tossed around like corks."
Eight feet of the petrol- and oil-laced salt water had filled Morgan's bar as if it was a neatly pulled pint, shorting out kitchen equipment, buckling his wooden floor and leaving sodden his beautiful bar counter, hand-carved in Italy with the Maori symbols for "welcome" and "flounder".
"It was heartbreaking, because I knew the extent of the damage - everything you worked so hard for, everything you'd put your heart into, lost," he said.
A DREAM COME TRUE
A gregarious man with a shaved head and biker tattoos, Morgan had worked at a Soho bar called Puck Fair for seven years, and a biker bar on the Upper East Side for 10 years before that, before his business partner gave him the opportunity in 2007 to do what he always wanted - open a Kiwi-themed bar.
"To me it's just a no-brainer that it would be a success," Morgan said, citing New Zealand's large expatriate community and reputation as "100 per cent natural".
"I just couldn't believe there wasn't a Kiwi bar here."
While some people might have put up All Blacks jerseys behind the bar to convey New Zealand culture, Morgan went with a more upscale approach, including a silver fern flag and arches with Maori carvings.
All the wine was from the Southern Hemisphere and much of the produce was from New Zealand. The menu included a hamburger with egg and pineapple, mince pies, and, of course, pavlova.
Morgan said he wanted to represent New Zealand in a classy way and let people know "we're not Australia, we have our own identity".
After opening in May 2007, Nelson Blue caught on with a lively mix of financial district after-work drinkers, tourists, expatriates and local New Yorkers.
A standing-room-only crowd of Kiwi expats filled the bar like sardines at 4am in October 2011 to watch New Zealand beat France in the Rugby World Cup final.
Since Nelson Blue opened, other New Zealanders have opened restaurants in New York - Mark Simmons started Kiwiana in Brooklyn, there's the Down Under Bakery's DUB Pies, also in Brooklyn, and Matt Lambert's Musket Room in Nolita. Also, Happy Bones Cafe, a coffee shop owned by Kiwi clothier Luke Harwood, will be soon reopening in Nolita.
But Nelson Blue was as much bar as restaurant and New Zealand culture was at the forefront of its identity.
"I really go out of my way to tout myself as: we are the only New Zealand bar in New York City."
Gazing at the ruined bar, Morgan and his crew got to work quickly, salvaging what they could and throwing out all the kitchen's ruined perishables.
At first he wasn't immediately sure if the bar would be able to ever reopen.
But their landlord, who owns several businesses on Front Street, did not charge them rent while spending six months repairing damage and moving the electrical equipment and air conditioning to the first floor and the roof.
The working assumption, Morgan said, was that "this is going to happen again," referring to the flooding. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made similar comments, saying the city needed to be prepared for more natural disasters brought on by climate change.
On July 1 Morgan got the green light to go ahead and this time he's doing things differently. There won't be a wooden floor this time to buckle, for example - it will be concrete.
"It's just a matter of being smarter," he said.
The custom Italian wood on the bar counter has been washed, sanded and sent back to Italy for inspection. Morgan, who has been working at Puck Fair in the meantime, said he was shooting for a grand re-opening in December. With the New Zealand dollar so strong, he encouraged all Kiwis to come visit him in New York and spend money at the bar.
While he sometimes thought about a bar down the street that somehow escaped damage, Morgan tried not to dwell on that or the "soul-destroying" experience he's suffered.
"You put it behind you," Morgan said.
"The way I was bought up by my parents was, just put it behind you, don't cry over spilled milk."
- © Fairfax NZ News