Year After Hurricane Sandy, Victims Contest Christie’s Status as a Savior

The New York Times

Gov. Chris Christie comforting Bonnie Miller in Brick, N.J., as he toured the coastline last fall.


Hurricane Sandy turned Chris Christie into something akin to America’s governor, as the nation watched him express his state’s pain on the devastated shoreline the morning after the storm, then triumphantly cut the ribbons on reopened boardwalks on Memorial Day. “We’re stronger than the storm,” he proclaimed in television commercials that ran in other states all summer.

But in the affected parts of New Jersey, Governor Christie’s storm campaign has not sold as well. With at least 26,000 people still out of their homes a year later, he has become the focus of ire for many storm survivors who say that the recovery does not look as impressive to them as it does to the rest of the country.

Homeowners promised money from Mr. Christie’s rebuilding program say they have yet to see it; those who have been denied aid vent about the bureaucracy. Some criticize him for encouraging residents to build to new flood zone standards to speed recovery; homeowners now say they are being penalized, because anyone who started rebuilding is ineligible for a grant.

Storm victims argue that the governor, who pushed fellow Republicans in Congress to pass a federal aid package, should be exerting similar pressure on insurers and banks to settle claims and prevent harm to the credit ratings of victims. And they accuse him of using the storm for his own aggrandizement, particularly after he spent $4.7 million in federal money to hire a politically connected firm to produce the television ads, choosing it over an agency that bid less but did not plan to show the governor in its commercials.

At a legislative hearing on Monday in hard-hit Toms River, a crowd of about 200 residents bubbled with anger. “This is Republican country, and the governor won’t even come down here,” one man yelled. As a lawmaker promised that the governor would release money soon, another resident shouted, “Stop defending him!”

It is not uncommon for a politician playing to a national audience to win better reviews from a distance than up close. And cleaning up after a storm as powerful as Hurricane Sandy is a messy business that always brings frustrations for those affected, many of whom focus their anger on officials. Already, Mr. Christie’s administration has begun buying properties in flood-prone areas, and on Tuesday it announced $57 million in federal money to provide vouchers to residents struggling with living costs as they wait to go home.

The governor’s office noted that $8 billion in federal aid had already been distributed, and that the administration had established 17 federally approved assistance programs for victims. In answering the criticism at a hearing on Tuesday, his office said that 100 homeowners, out of 4,100 approved for rebuilding grants, had signed contracts with builders, suggesting that the logjam was slowly easing.

Mr. Christie has blamed the slowness of federal agencies for delays in getting money to residents, and said that New Jersey was paying for the sins from Hurricane Katrina, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency put up hurdles to prevent fraud.

There is little sign that the dissatisfaction could hurt his chances next month when he seeks re-election against his Democratic opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono. One recent poll, conducted by Rutgers University, showed that 74 percent of likely voters along the Jersey Shore are supporting him. Researchers said, however, that these tended to be Republican areas.

Mr. Christie invited particular risk that he would bear the brunt of criticism from those most affected by the hurricane when he embraced the role of savior.

He devoted most of his annual State of the State speech to the storm. He spent the weeks before Memorial Day and Labor Day at events along the shore, hosting Prince Harry of Britain and the “Today” show. A recent campaign ad indicated the thrust of his re-election bid: “When tragedy struck, he was there, every step of the way.”

The afternoon that ad was released, Mr. Christie rushed to the boardwalk fire in Seaside Heights, calling Brian Williams on the “NBC Nightly News” from the scene.

He set high expectations for recovery, initially promising that the shore would be open by Memorial Day, then pushing it to the Fourth of July, and only more recently saying that recovery would take 18 to 24 months. For months, some storm victims have hounded him on Twitter, complaining with hashtags like #redtape and saying that the shore is #notokay, despite the images of the rebuilt boardwalks on television.

“Somebody needs to step up for us; I don’t think he’s done it,” said Gigi Liaguno-Dorr, who has been fighting with her insurance company to rebuild her restaurant, Jakeabob’s Bay, now in a rented spot in Union Beach. “If they have, you’d think there’d be some kind of magic happening, some kind of movement. Instead of hearing all the stories similar to my stories, you’d be hearing, ‘We’re good, we’re good.’ We keep hearing the same stuff: ‘Where’s the money?’ ”

Housing advocates have sued the administration, arguing that the procedure for awarding the rebuilding grants has been opaque. Lost applications and other mistakes have been enough of a problem that the State Department of Community Affairs recently set up a team to look into errors that resulted in people’s being denied relief.

Criticism of the governor crystallized this summer around the “Stronger Than the Storm” ads, intended to encourage tourism. The Asbury Park Press reported in August that the firm hired to run the campaign, a lobbying and public affairs company led by a prominent Democratic fund-raiser who had recently brought on well-connected Republicans, had been chosen over an advertising firm that had bid 40 percent less but that did not propose using the governor’s family in the spots. The firm chosen then hired an advertising agency that already worked for state agencies.

Other residents complained bitterly after the governor offered a second round of relief money to the victims of the Seaside Heights Boardwalk fire earlier this month, while they were still waiting for the first round.

“I understand that businesses have to get back up and running, but take care of your own first,” said Tom Waszkielewicz of Sayreville, who is waiting for a grant from the governor’s program. “Make sure there’s a roof over their head. I have tarps over my house.”

At a hearing in Jersey City last month, Mary Chepulis of Union Beach told legislators of finger-pointing between FEMA and her insurance company, which had declined to pay even remotely close to what it would cost to rebuild her home. As they argued, Ms. Chepulis said, her mortgage went into forbearance, meaning that FEMA would no longer provide assistance for the apartment she and her husband are renting while they wait to build a smaller replacement home.

Ms. Chepulis, who voted for Mr. Christie in 2009, wondered why he had not followed the example of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, in writing to credit card and mortgage companies asking them not to penalize people who had trouble making payments because of the storm. She had gotten no help, she said, from Mr. Christie’s program.

“It’s just a big show,” she said in an interview after the hearing.

Mr. Christie’s administration has declined to attend all four legislative hearings around the state. When Ms. Buono criticized him for choosing the higher bid for the tourism ads, he attacked her for “politicizing” the storm.

But he acknowledged the criticism at a campaign event in Point Pleasant Beach last month.

“When I say we’re stronger than the storm, when I say that New Jersey has made an extraordinary comeback in the last 10 months, it doesn’t mean for a second that I have forgotten those folks who still have a comeback due them,” he said.

“There is not a night that I go to sleep that I don’t think about the people who are still out of their homes,” he added. “And I will not rest until each and every one of them is back in their homes.”

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