Christie meets, hugs those devastated by Sandy

I was the pool reporter today traveling with Gov. Christie when he took a helicopter from state police headquarters to Sayreville, which saw serious devastation from Sandy. Here's my report, in its entirety:

At 10:30 a.m. Gov. Christie left the Regional Operations Intelligence Center in Ewing for Sayreville, a Middlesex County town southwest of Staten Island that sustained severe damage to property after storm surge during Sandy. The neighborhood the governor visited is next to the South River, a tributary from the Raritan River, which leads out to the Atlantic Ocean.

Christie, wearing white Nikes, pin-stripe suit pants and the same fleece embroidered with his name that he has worn all week, was joined by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), Congressman Frank Palone (D., NJ), Sayreville-native Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), and Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex).

Upon arrival Christie spoke briefly with Sayreville Mayor Kennedy O’Brien, who said that because of the efforts of borough emergency personnel, including the police chief and emergency management coordinator standing with him, there were no fatalities in Sayreville.

“Thank you fellas, great job,” Christie said.

The neighborhood off Bordentown Avenue saw five feet of water rise over front porches and into the homes of many residents. The foundations of several homes were washed out and appeared to be balanced precariously over pools of water. For 24 hours after the storm, conditions were too severe for search-and-rescue operations in this area, officials said.

In Sayreville, almost 200 people were rescued, mostly by boat, and 130 remain in shelters.

Codey Buck took officials into his backyard, where he showed them “how the whole back of my house fell in.”

“It freakin’ fell in, took the whole basement in,” he said.

Sweeney, looking at the damage, said: “Oh my God.”

Buck had just rebuilt his entire house, he said, and put $8,000 into repairs to his basement after Tropical Storm Irene last year.

Buck expressed the wishes of many residents in saying that the neighborhood, after sustaining water damage in three storms in three years, should be turned into “soccer fields.”

“I think, governor, we need to level the whole neighborhood, give everybody a check and get out of here,” he said.

Christie didn’t tell Buck his position on this, but later, speaking to another resident, he said that “what we’re trying to do [is] get some of the money to buy you out.”

Several women cried in Christie’s arms about losing so much of their possessions. The governor alternatively hugged them, put his hands on both shoulders and spoke softly with an arm around their backs.

“I don’t feel safe in my house and I don’t know what to do,” cried Elaine Konopka.

Christie said that the Federal Emergency Management Administration would be helping out soon. Some said FEMA didn’t treat them appropriately after Irene. Christie said: “Don’t you worry about it. I’ll be with the president this afternoon, and the head of FEMA.”

To give residents a perspective of what they were dealing with, Christie repeatedly told them that “this is the worst storm we’ve seen.” He said 95 percent of customers for their utility, Jersey Power & Light, are out of power, but governors from Mississippi and Massachusetts told him this morning that they would be sending additional crews to help restore electricity.

“This is going to be a bit of a haul,” Christie said.

In telling the governor about her situation, resident Deborah Decker said she didn’t want to be too much of a pain.

“Don’t worry,” Christie said. “I’m as big of a pain in the ass as anybody.”

As Christie walked down the street he approached several people who wanted to show him their homes.

“Please help us,” said Theresa Mills.

“That’s what I’m here to do,” he responded.

He told a 95-year-old woman who recently had heart surgery: “I want you to relax. You had all that work done on your ticker, I don’t want you to get wound up.”

Kim Bosso introduced the governor to her son, who has cystic fibrosis. He has been cut off from his breathing machines since the power went out, and the utility company told her she’s not a priority case while her insurance won’t cover her if she goes to a hospital.

“This is my lawyer,” Christie said, introducing her to Charles McKenna, his chief counsel. “He’s going to take care of you.”

McKenna took down her information.

A disabled great-grandmother, Dolores Beaton, 62, asked Christie to go into her home. He took her hand and led her through a huge puddle up onto her porch. They went inside with Guadagno. Furniture was toppled over and the house smelled like mildew. Bills were lying on a table, wet. She said the recliner that she sleeps on had been ruined.

“Everything’s gone,” she said. “I don’t have anything to lose I can’t replace anything – I have no money.”

Christie told her that he was going to make sure FEMA opened an office in Middlesex County so she can get the help she needed.

After he left the house, he talked with Wisniewski about what happened to the neighborhood.

“It came in so quickly,” Wisniewski said.

“The storm surge was incredible,” Christie said.

Patricia Smith showed the governor an outside door to her basement, where water had filled up.

“I’m devastated over this,” she said. “I’ve been trying to keep it together but it’s very hard.”

“Of course it is,” Christie responded. “That’s why I came.”

Samantha Hartung, 31, cried to Christie about her house, which she said was ruined beyond repair. She said she was hiding her pain from her children.

“Because that’s what we do, right?” he said. He added: “It’s not your fault. You were ready, but you can’t be ready for that.”

Christie told her that one of his sons asked this week if there was anything more powerful than water, and he said “no.”

He told a group of people: “Hang in there, okay? Sayreville’s a tough place.”

Before he left, Christie spoke to reporters but didn’t take questions.

He said of Sweeney: “I’m very happy he came with me today and I appreciate his friendship and his leadership.”

“The fact that we didn’t have any loss of life here in Sayreville is a testimony to the people of this town and the government here that were able to put the right people in place to handle these kind of circumstances,” he said.

He said he wanted to visit Sayreville before he meets with the president later today so the president understands “that it’s not just the Jersey Shore that’s been devastated.”

“I wanted to be some of his eyes and ears for this so you’ll be sure I’ll be talking to the president in a couple of hours about what I saw here in Sayreville and about the fact that we need FEMA to be here and be a presence,” he said.