Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Dispensing Sandy assistance becomes Christie's albatross

Nineteen months after Hurricane Sandy left four feet of water in 82-year-old Thomas Largey's house in Sea Bright, he's still living with his daughter while awaiting aid to raise and rebuild his Monmouth County home.

Reopened resorts and new boardwalks touted by Gov. Christie obscure the experience of Jersey Shore residents like Largey who remain in hotels or with relatives. At the start of the second summer since the October 2012 storm, 6,300 people remain on a waiting list to receive grants for house-raising. Fewer than half of the 5,400 applications approved have led to construction.

Recovery from Sandy, which was initially a strength for Christie and helped him win a second term, is joining his list of liabilities, along with persistent budget gaps and the George Washington Bridge scandal. Almost three-fourths of New Jersey voters said aid had been too slow and blamed the state. Satisfaction with the pace dropped below 50 percent for the first time in an April poll conducted by Monmouth University.

"They keep stalling and waiting - I don't know," Largey said in his gutted home. "Eventually, we're going to lose the money when a couple of states justify why money should go there."

Sandy, and the subsequent quest to recover from one of the costliest U.S. natural disasters, was a defining moment for New Jersey and Christie. The storm, which made landfall near Atlantic City packing gusts reaching 89 miles per hour, killed 38 people in New Jersey and left 2.7 million households in the state without power. Flooding crippled mass transit while waves and gales tore up boardwalks and beach towns along the 127-mile coast.

Christie stopped campaigning on behalf of Mitt Romney, the Republican running against President Obama, to tend to the emergency at home; less than a week before Election Day, he accompanied Obama for aerial views of the destruction, and hugged and praised him for his promise of federal aid.

The first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, Christie attracted Democrats and independent voters. His approval rose to a record 74 percent in January 2013, up from 56 percent before the storm, according to Quinnipiac University polls.

In November, the governor won a second term after beating his challenger, Democratic State Sen. Barbara Buono, by 22 percentage points. Then e-mails surfaced in January linking Christie aides to the September closing of George Washington Bridge access lanes, purportedly to punish Fort Lee's Democratic mayor, who didn't endorse the governor's reelection bid.

Revenue shortfalls, credit downgrades, and rising pension costs also have dogged Christie. Standard & Poor's said last week the state may face a seventh downgrade, a record for a New Jersey governor, if Christie and lawmakers can't end recurring deficits.

About a quarter of Democrats who responded approved of Christie's job performance in a June 3 poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind, down from 44 percent a year ago.

Christie, 51, spent Memorial Day weekend, the start of the Shore tourism season, strolling boardwalks and taking pictures with residents. Last year, rentals and vendors were hit with a double impact of damp weather and sagging attendance as people stayed away after seeing television footage of the area.

The governor estimated repairing damage and preparing for future storms would take $36.9 billion. Of 40,000 owner-occupied homes severely damaged by Sandy, about 28,000 have received or are receiving housing assistance, according to his office.

At a May 27 meeting in Manahawkin, Christie said the state had been learning how to improve the effort as it goes.

"I told people from the beginning that the most difficult part of this was going to be near the end," he said. "None of us in state government has ever run a recovery program where there was $36 billion in damage."

Of the $1.83 billion in federal disaster money the state received from the first round of funding, more than $1.23 billion has been committed or spent, according to the Governor's Office.

New Jersey will soon receive a second round, $1.46 billion, that will help move about 3,000 people off the waiting list, Christie said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a third and final $880 million this month, and Christie said he expected to clear the waiting list when that arrives.

Frustrated with the trickle of money from Trenton, Largey said he had begun seeking a private loan. His house was the backdrop for a news conference held by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat seeking support to override Christie's veto of his Sandy "Bill of Rights" legislation in May.

The bill would have required applications not addressed within 50 days to be automatically approved and would spread more money to low- and moderate-income residents. It cleared the legislature with Republican support, though those lawmakers have refused to override the governor's veto.

Christie, in a statement, said changes were needed to "eliminate redundancy, conflicts with federal law, and unnecessary and costly administrative burdens to aid distribution."

George Kasimos, 48, of Toms River, said that although the programs were federally funded, the responsibility for administering them lies in Trenton.

His house on a lagoon took on a foot of water during the storm. In the aftermath, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave many homeowners a choice: elevate their houses or face flood insurance premiums of as much as $30,000. Kasimos started Stop FEMA Now, an online group that was successful in redesigning flood maps and that continues to advocate for people who suffered Sandy damages.

Kasimos, a real estate agent, said he was never politically active before Sandy. People are running out of patience, he said.

"I used to love Chris Christie, but I think he let us down," he said. "Everybody wants to blame the other guy but at the end of the day, the governor is ultimately responsible."

Terrence Dopp Bloomberg News
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