Governor Chris Christie, saying Hurricane Sandy has framed his political future, said New Jersey won’t be ready to withstand another such beating until after storm-surge barriers are built along its Atlantic coastline.
Marking Sandy’s anniversary, Christie said in an interview that the Oct. 29 storm has defined his first term and shaped his bid for re-election. Christie also said he hopes to see the Jersey Shore, the largest piece of a $40 billion-a-year tourism industry, return to pre-storm levels by next summer.
“Going to the Shore over the summer and seeing so many people who came back and wanted to be supportive of what was going on down there was a real high point for me and I think for our efforts,” the governor, 51, said during the interview.
Christie has pledged to use “every tool” at his disposal to force beachfront property owners to allow construction of artificial dunes along the ocean shore. The surf-blocking sand proved crucial during the storm, which damaged or destroyed 346,000 homes. Where barriers were present, flooding and storm-surge destruction was minimal, yet some residents have resisted, citing property rights and impaired water views.
“Those dune systems aren’t done yet,” Christie said in his Trenton office. “We’re kind of hoping against hope.”
“By next hurricane season, we will be stronger than we were in October of 2012,” he said. “In this interim period right now, I’d say we are not. But we’ve got a plan to get there and I’d say with a little luck not to get hit with something between now and then, we should be OK.”
Sandy, which made landfall near Atlantic City packing gusts reaching 89 miles an 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 (200-kilometer) coast.
It proved to be one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Christie estimated it would take $36.9 billion to repair the damage and prepare the state for the next hurricane.
Originally dubbed “Frankenstorm” by forecasters, 1,000-mile-wide Sandy strengthened as it barreled to shore by merging with another weather system moving in from the west. The resulting devastation extended from the Carolinas to Rhode Island, with the heaviest toll in New Jersey and New York City.
Sandy’s aftermath cemented the standing of Christie, a Republican governing a state that has trended Democratic and fueled his re-election bid. Recent voter surveys show him dominating state Senator Barbara Buono, the Democrat who’s challenging him, by 26 percentage points or more. Christie is mentioned among prospective 2016 presidential candidates, yet he’s said he hasn’t even considered a run.
Memorable images from the storm include the Jet Star roller coaster toppled from a Seaside Heights pier into the ocean, and homes pushed from their foundations floating off into Barnegat Bay, a waterway separating the mainland from two washed-out barrier islands that took the brunt of the blow.
Building dunes, or beachfront berms, along the shore is a linchpin in “hardening” against future storms, Christie said. Once they are in place, the state will be better positioned to protect property, construct roads that can withstand flooding and prepare to move hospitals “off the grid” when necessary.
Those measures will enhance what the governor referred to as resilience in the interview.
“Resiliency first and foremost is protecting private property because so much of the private property destruction leads to the public infrastructure destruction,” Christie said. “When we’re driving houses into the middle of Route 35, then that becomes a problem with the roadway and all the rest. I think the dune system is first and foremost and that’s why I’ve put so much emphasis on it.”
Yet at least 1,000 property owners haven’t signed needed easements, the state Environmental Protection Department said last month. In some communities, town officials went as far as publishing the names and addresses of holdouts to get them to cooperate and let construction move forward.
A year after Sandy, recovery is well along in parts of coastal New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved aid for 182,000 individuals and households in the three states, totaling $1.4 billion. It has supplied $3.1 billion to repair roads, bridges and other public property.
Christie embraced President Barack Obama as he toured the destruction in the days following the storm and less than a week before Election Day, setting off criticism from fellow Republicans. Congress later passed and Obama signed a bill sending $50.5 billion in disaster aid to affected states.
Yet rebuilding has been slow to nonexistent in some areas: whole neighborhoods on New Jersey Route 35 in Ortley Beach remain a pocked and barren landscape, and thousands of state residents still await relief or financial aid.
While polls show most voters credit the governor’s leadership in Sandy’s aftermath, Christie hasn’t done enough to gird the state against future storms, said Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization.
Christie didn’t try to widen building setbacks from waterlines, harden utilities to prevent power failures or prepare the state for higher sea levels, Tittel said. As an example, he said Christie mistakenly let towns rebuild sewers in ways that leave them vulnerable to future hurricanes.
“It’s hubris to think we’re stronger than the storm,” Tittel said in an interview. “We’re really not in a position to deal with another storm like Sandy.”
Christie’s administration has moved at an “unprecedented pace” to distribute the first $1.83 billion round of federal aid, and the governor said he anticipates the release of a second round of as much as $1.5 billion in the next week. The forthcoming money was delayed by the partial shutdown of the U.S. government this month, he said.
In some cases, the state has struggled to keep up with the demand for help and has agreements to let homeowners pay for work and seek reimbursement from FEMA, Christie said. “We’ve got to do a better job of letting them know they can go forward with certain repairs and be reimbursed,” he said.
A year after the storm and the start of rebuilding, Christie looked back at the high point for him, when he saw that most of the boardwalks had been rebuilt by the end of May.
“The low point was seeing that much suffering and recognizing that you had the responsibility to try and help these folks,” the governor said. “It was an enormous amount of stress for those people and what was going on in their lives, and for me.”