Fri April 12, 2013
Planet Money

What Saved Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park?

Originally published on Sat April 13, 2013 8:18 pm

Just a few days after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City last fall, I went out to
Coney Island to see how Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park had fared.

The park flooded during the storm, and when I visited it was still covered in sand. The story I reported that day sounded almost like an obituary. It was hard to imagine the rides ever moving again.

I was wrong.

A couple weeks ago, I went back and found that things at the park were shockingly normal.

The owners of the amusement park didn't have insurance. They didn't get assistance from the federal government. Instead, they recovered by tapping into their network of friends and family.

"We did have some money saved up, and a lot of it is coming out of everybody's personal accounts, " Deno Vourderis, whose family owns the park, told me.

Researchers call this "informal insurance."

"Informal insurance means you draw on those networks, you draw on the trust to bring in resources, " Daniel Aldrich, a political scientist, told me. "That is often a much more effective way for people to get resources after a disaster than the formal networks of ... FEMA and so forth which are much slower."

But it wasn't just informal insurance that saved the Wonder Wheel. Dino and his family also relied on a more familiar financial tool: the credit card.

Dino told me they paid for a lot of the repairs with an American Express card.

Those bills and the debts owed to family and friends will have to be paid back, so Dino and the other businesses on Coney Island are still hoping that formal help will arrive.

Sen. Chuck Schumer has told the city's coastal businesses to save their receipts, suggesting that federal assistance may eventually come. But if these businesses hadn't tapped their own networks, you wouldn't have that feeling you have on Coney Island today: The feeling that summer is almost here.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



An update now on a story we ran just after Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. At the time, we sent NPR's Zoe Chase out to Coney Island, Brooklyn's iconic beach. It's home to classic amusement park rides, including the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel. The story she brought back sounded almost like an obituary.

ZOE CHASE, BYLINE: Here in Coney Island, if you look up, everything looks normal. You can still see the Wonder Wheel standing over us. But when you look down, everything is caged in sand. It's hard to imagine if these rides are ever going to move again.

CORNISH: But a few months later, Coney Island is open for business. That's Aly Page(ph) and her cousin, Daniel Perkins(ph), on the Spookarama Ride.

DANIEL PERKINS: There was some new stuff in there.

ALY PAGE: It's scarier than usual.

CORNISH: So today, Planet Money's Zoe Chase has this follow-up report to tell us how Coney Island proved her wrong.

CHASE: In my defense, you should have seen how bad it was. This was the scene back then just after the storm, generators were buzzing, pieces of carnival games were lying in the street, stuffed animals, Zorba's fortunetelling machine, and at the foot of the Wonder Wheel, I found Deno Vourderis picking through the destruction of his family's amusement park.

DENO VOURDERIS: Our park is devastated. We're not doing very well.

CHASE: We're sorry.

VOURDERIS: It's okay, thank you.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: The worst hit, it seemed, was the Spook-o-rama.

VOURDERIS: This is our scary house...

CHACE: It was underground. The whole thing was coated in mud and sand, and we made our way into the darkness.

VOURDERIS: I mean, everything here is gone. The more you go - just don't walk here. That's all hollow.

CHACE: It looked like the zombie apocalypse in there. Skulls were rolling around on this warped, wooden floor. So how did Deno go from that to this? If you guessed insurance, nope.

VOURDERIS: Insurance is too much money. We can't afford it.

CHACE: This is Deno Vourderis now. I caught up with him a few days ago. He said even now that they know how bad it can be, they're not planning to get flood insurance.

VOURDERIS: When you're in a flood zone, when you're on the water, it's like, you know, they can't deny you insurance, but they can make it really expensive.

CHACE: What about all that government help promised to Sandy victims - federal relief from Congress, small business loans? Again, no, that takes a while. That's not what kicked in right away on Coney Island. So how did so much of Coney Island come back? The answer came when I was talking to this guy.

PETER AGRAPIDES: My name is Peter Agrapides. I'm the owner of Williams Candy.

CHACE: How long?

AGRAPIDES: Twenty-eight years.

CHACE: Glass jars of gummy bears, Swedish fish, chocolates, sour watermelons, lots and lots of flossy, caramel-covered candy apples.

AGRAPIDES: We are known all over the world. I'm not talking - I have people come in from New Jersey, 100 miles away, for candy apples. I don't want to say this, but I have a monopoly here.

CHACE: A monopoly on candy apples?

AGRAPIDES: Who, who's got them? Nobody.

CHACE: This candy store is retail and wholesale. So he opened up a couple days after the storm - no electricity, no Internet. But if he didn't open up, somebody else might have moved in on his candy apple monopoly. So how did you pay for all this recovery you had to do?

AGRAPIDES: We borrowed from everyone we could. We had relatives, we had friends, and we had a few dollars. It's all done, and it's nice, and I love it.

CHACE: Informal insurance works the same way. You pay into it by having a good reputation, by having lots of friends and relatives. And you cash it out way quicker than the formal insurance system would move. Daniel Aldrich is a political scientist. He's living in Japan researching Kobe and the tsunami. He studied this. This is what makes businesses come back from disaster.

DANIEL ALDRICH: Informal insurance means you draw on those networks, you draw on the trust to bring in resources. That's often a much more effective way for people to get resources after a disaster than the formal networks of SBA and FEMA and so forth, which are much slower deliberately.

CHACE: The Vourderis family, the Wonder Wheel guys, they tapped into this informal insurance network, too, and it played a big role. But there's another part of this story, sort of the opposite of an informal network. In fact, you might argue it's one of the most sophisticated products in the history of mankind. These financial institutions, they make emergency loans to people without even meeting them: credit cards, American Express.

VOURDERIS: Most of it was on the Am Ex. You know, we did have some money saved up, and, you know, a lot of it's coming out of, you know, everybody's personal accounts. But we'll get there, you know. The good thing is, like I said, everything is brand new. So we won't have to change anything for a while.

CHACE: Unless there's another storm.


VOURDERIS: There won't be another storm.

CHACE: And all this investment will be worth it unless there's another storm. Sandy money is coming. Keep your receipts, the New York Senator Chuck Schumer has told the city's coastal businesses. And so, Deno and the other businesses on the boardwalk, they're hoping that help will eventually arrive. They'll pay back those loans from their friends, from the credit cards, but if these businesses hadn't tapped their own networks, you wouldn't have that feeling that you have today on Coney Island that summer is almost here. Zoe Chace, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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