Nineteen months after Hurricane Sandy left four feet of water in Thomas Largey’s house in Sea Bright, New Jersey, the 82-year-old still lives with his daughter as he awaits aid to raise and rebuild his home.
Reopened resorts and new boardwalks touted by Governor Chris 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 are under 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 has been too slow and blamed the state. Satisfaction with the pace dropped below 50 percent for the first time in an April poll by Monmouth University.
“They keep stalling and waiting -- I don’t know,” Largey said during an interview 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 for Christie. The storm, which made landfall near Atlantic City packing gusts reaching 89 miles per hour (143 kph), 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 oversaw the aftermath in a blue fleece jacket embroidered with his title and name that he wore for news conferences, interviews and tours. He stopped campaigning on behalf of Mitt Romney, the Republican running against Barack Obama for president, 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 Senator Barbara Buono, by 22 percentage points. Then e-mails surfaced in January that showed Christie aides used the September closing of bridge access lanes to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, who didn’t endorse the governor’s re-election bid.
Revenue shortfalls, credit downgrades and rising pension costs have also dogged Christie. Standard & Poor’s said this week that the state may face a seventh downgrade, a record for a New Jersey governor, if he and lawmakers can’t end recurring deficits.
About a quarter of Democrats approved of Christie’s job performance in a June 3 poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind, down from 44 percent a year ago. Forty-eight percent of all voters now believe the state is on the wrong track, the most pessimistic they've been since January 2012.
“Budget shortfalls, a slower-than-hoped-for Sandy recovery, and Bridgegate could be to blame,” said Krista Jenkins, director of the poll.
Christie, 51, spent Memorial Day weekend, which kicks off the shore’s tourism season, strolling the Asbury Park and Belmar 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 the shore town of Manahawkin, Christie said the state has 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 of 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 wait list, Christie said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a third and final $880 million this month, and Christie said that he expects to clear the waiting list when that arrives.
Frustrated with the trickle of money from Trenton, Largey of Sea Bright said he’s begun seeking a private loan. His home was the backdrop for a press 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 while the programs are federally funded, the responsibility for administering them lies in Trenton.
His home 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 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.”