Obama Tours N.J. Storm Damage as Restoring Power Takes Priority

US President Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
US President Barack Obama, center, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, right, visits a neighborhood hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in Brigantine, New Jersey, on October 31, 2012. Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama toured New Jersey’s hurricane damage with Governor Chris Christie by helicopter as rescuers searched for stranded residents, the death toll rose to eight and more than half of the state’s homes and businesses were without electricity.

The priority is restoration of power cut when the Atlantic storm Sandy made landfall Oct. 29, Christy told reporters late yesterday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was overseeing a delivery of more than 500,000 gallons of diesel fuel for hospital generators and equipment in the field.

The Republican governor signed an executive order limiting water use to ease the load on treatment plants. Twelve suppliers advised customers to boil water to kill any contamination.

Along the New Jersey coast yesterday, residents and emergency workers began to remove downed trees, pumped flooded basements and cleared sand and debris from roads. In Atlantic City, casino executives made plans to try to open tomorrow.

In the hardest-hit parts of the state, authorities couldn’t estimate how long it would take to rebuild. Along two barrier islands north of Atlantic City in Ocean County, where amusement piers and rides were destroyed, rescue crews checked houses to make sure everyone who wanted to evacuate had been taken away. With access to the islands blocked and homes that had been wiped off their foundations bobbing in Barnegat Bay, workers began to remove sand from roads.

Tourism Backbone

“All of these shore towns have to be up and running by summer -- that’s when everyone is coming down here and it’s what they rely on,” said Frank Howe, 50, a tile setter from Long Branch, a coastal community damaged by the storm. “People will still come to the beach. But we won’t have a boardwalk for them.”

The state’s 127 miles of beaches, known as the Jersey Shore, are the backbone of a $38 billion tourism industry, New Jersey’s third largest. Last year, 67.8 million tourists visited the state, according to the state division of travel and tourism.

Casinos in Atlantic City, which claims title to America’s first oceanside boardwalk and is the second-largest U.S. gaming center, have been central to Christie’s economic revival strategy since he took office in January 2010.

Two hundred responders were on the scene of a 336,000-gallon diesel fuel spill in Arthur Kill, the body of water between New Jersey and Staten Island, according to NBC News. The spill, from a ruptured tank, was believed to be contained in booms, according to the news report, which attributed the information to U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Les Tippets. A message left on a Coast Guard media line wasn’t immediately returned.

Filling Shelters

In all, 2.04 million residences and businesses -- about half the state -- were without power, Christie told reporters about 7:30 p.m. yesterday in West Trenton. That was 50,000 fewer than the U.S. Department of Energy reported at 2 p.m Eight people, including three who may have drowned, were reported dead in New Jersey as of yesterday morning, according to Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state office of emergency management. Authorities are trying to confirm that each death was storm-related, she said.

Christie at the evening press conference in West Trenton had no update on possible deaths.

There were 6,329 people in shelters across the state. Temporary housing in three counties -- Morris, Passaic and Union -- was at capacity.

Helicopter Tour

Obama arrived yesterday near Atlantic City and boarded a helicopter with Christie, 50, to tour storm damage.

“We’re going to be here for the long haul,” Obama said at the Brigantine Beach Community Center. “We’re not going to tolerate any bureaucracy.”

Christie, who has often been a surrogate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, praised Obama, a Democrat, for his administration’s response to the storm. With six days left for voters to decide whether to re-elect Obama, the storm brought the two political foes together. White House officials and campaign aides said politics played no role in the visit.

“We’re going to work together to make sure we get ourselves through this crisis and everybody back to normal,” Christie said at the community center.

Election Plan

Last night, the governor said Kim Guadagno, the lieutenant governor who also is secretary of state and the chief elections official, would work on a voting contingency plan today and tomorrow.

“We’ll be ready for Election Day one way or another,” he said. “People will have the opportunity to vote.”

He refused to allow Guadagno, who was standing behind him, to describe how the process may work Nov. 6. He said the question was unwelcome and characterized the matter as “an obsession.”

On Ocean County’s northern barrier island, where episodes of the MTV show “Jersey Shore” have been filmed, a roller coaster was submerged and an amusement pier in ruins. More than a dozen small fires burned from natural-gas lines that had been attached to damaged or destroyed homes on part of the island, which includes Seaside Heights, Lavallette and Mantoloking, said Rich Peterson, a county spokesman.

Boardwalks along two islands were destroyed. Wood and other debris was tossed across the islands. The sandy barriers --about 40 miles long -- are the site of thousands of homes and businesses, and officials haven’t assessed the extent of damage or how long it’ll take to complete repairs, Peterson said.

“We’ve never faced anything like this before,” he said. “The brunt of the storm hit us badly, everywhere.”

Halloween Parade

At an American Red Cross shelter operating in a gym at Burlington County College in Pemberton, shore evacuees smoked cigarettes and drank coffee as children kicked rubber balls and ran down a cinder-block hallway. Volunteers set up folding cots and provided food.

Volunteers held an impromptu Halloween parade for dozens of kids, one of them wearing a Captain America costume.

Thomas Filkohazi, 47, a chef, and Vincent Madonia, 44, a truck driver, both from Seaside Heights, said they had spent two days at a shelter at a Toms River high school, and when that filled to capacity, they were transferred to the Pemberton facility. Yesterday afternoon, some temporary residents saw their first glimpses of home on the television, Filkohazi said.

Devastation Seen

“We saw devastation, and the reality set in,” said Filkohazi, who had moved into a rental house on Carteret Avenue with his fiancee the day before the storm hit. “We had a good inkling of what was going on, but when we saw the news and the neighborhoods where we live -- I’m a grown man and I don’t cry, but there were tears in my eyes.”

He waved the key to what he said was a home he owns in Point Pleasant Beach, about 12 miles north of Seaside Heights. “You want to buy it? Three hundred and fifty grand. This is all that’s left of it.”

Madonia said time at the shelter was taking an emotional toll.

“Everybody’s helpless,” he said. “You have whole families crying. They lost their baby pictures. Their cars. Everything.” Some families “are here just walking in circles.”

In Toms River, on the mainland, residents were permitted to return to their homes a day after flooding forced them to flee. Some roads were still covered with water and fallen trees. The side of a house was sheared off, exposing a living room and kitchen with a table and chairs still in place.

Tracy Brazaitis, 53, said she reacted with “shock, just shock” after seeing her home, which had four feet of water on the first floor. Her back porch had dislodged from the house.

‘Never Imagine’

“Who would have ever imagined this?” she said. “You see this on the news, but you never imagine it can happen to you.”

Nearby, Nancy Beiswinger, 60, discovered that the house she rents to a tenant was in tatters. The living room, kitchen and bathroom floors were covered with several inches of wet branches and twigs. A musty smell filled the air. Her own house, across the street, suffered a cracked foundation, she said.

“It looked like a bomb went off,” said Beiswinger as she started to cry.

In Long Branch, a city of 31,000 on the northern end of New Jersey’s coast, two surfers in black wet suits braved the churning Atlantic Ocean.

Debris Fields

Hoses directed water to the streets from flooded basements. Lawns were littered with fence panels, downed trees and trash from upended cans.

At a beach-front townhouse development, Renaissance on the Ocean, crews used front-end loaders to clear debris. Shattered glass lay on the ground and balcony railings were ruined. On Ocean Avenue, parallel to the water a block inland, roof shingles and vinyl siding pieces lined the gutters.

In Atlantic City, blinking lights from slot machines could be seen only through locked doors. Flood waters had receded, leaving behind sand and debris. Casino executives met yesterday with state officials to discuss re-opening tomorrow, according to Tom Pohlman, executive vice president and general manager for the Golden Nugget.

“We have no damage and are prepared to open as soon as the state allows,” Pohlman said in a statement.

Casinos such as Caesars, the Trump Taj Mahal and the Showboat probably were spared from significant damage because of a project earlier this year to fortify the beach and build dunes, said Frank Branagan, a superintendent with Agate Construction Co.

The boardwalk outside those casinos was intact.

Dunes Sacrifice

“You sacrifice your dunes to save your city,” Branagan said in an interview on the dunes.

The city, with 40,000 residents, was mostly quiet as power remained out for more than 5,000 homes and businesses, according to Atlantic City Electric.

A crew with Atlantic City Electric pumped underground water out of a manhole next to Caesars casino to assess damage to the city’s electrical grid.

The storm caused physical and economic damage at All Star Liquors at New Hampshire and Atlantic avenues in Atlantic City, one block from where the boardwalk was torn apart.

“We had almost $20,000 worth of damage,” Vishee Mandahar, 26, said from inside his family’s store as workers pumped out water and mud and picked up glass from broken liquor bottles. The store was flooded with about a foot of water, leaving mildew and mud splashes on the counter and walls.

“By not opening we’re losing money,” Mandahar said. “We’ve got bills to pay.”

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