SEASIDE PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A year after superstorm Sandy pummeled his state, Gov. Chris Christie said he is celebrating how far New Jersey has come since the storm and pledged not to forget the thousands who still cannot go home yet.
Visiting a flood-damaged firehouse in Seaside Park, with bare Sheetrock and dangling wires, the governor said Tuesday is a day to remember volunteers and first responders who risked their lives to save others.
Christie, who stayed overnight at the governor’s beach house in neighboring Island Beach State Park, said he woke up Tuesday morning and was struck by “just how much different we all feel a year later.”
“I think we’ve made tremendous progress in the last year,” Christie said earlier Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.” “Tens of thousands of people back in their homes, all the boardwalks rebuilt, so many businesses that have come back online, but I also know we still have a lot more work to do.”
Christie is expected to be easily re-elected next week after a campaign in which he touted his handling of the storm aftermath as one of his main accomplishments.
But he also has come under fire from Sandy victims who complain that a year later, they have received little or no money from a multitude of federal and state aid programs.
“The first federal dollars from the Sandy aid package didn’t flow to New Jersey until the end of May,” Christie said, adding that $8 billion has already been distributed to Sandy victims across the state.
Debbie Fortier of Brick came to Seaside Park to meet the governor. She told Christie how her family’s house had to be torn down and how her family has yet to receive any aid.
“We’re physically, emotionally and spiritually just drained,” she said after Christie left. “Does anybody hear us?”
Yet Fortier said she takes Christie at his word that help is on the way.
Another one of the 26,000 people in New Jersey still without a home, Karen Stokes, said she can’t rebuild because her insurance company isn’t paying up.
“Here it is going to be the holidays, and many people still have no homes,” she said. “Many don’t know what they’re doing. If they only made the insurance company do what they’re supposed to do.”
The firehouse visit was the first of a full day of Sandy anniversary visits the governor planned to make Tuesday.
Later in the day, he was to attend a memorial service for the 71 New Jersey victims who died in the storm, to help with light repair work at a flood-damaged home in Union Beach, to attend a ceremony in Belmar and greet firefighters in Sayreville.
Many families in Union Beach say they’re not getting the money they need to rebuild their homes.
Mary Jane Mihalak volunteers every day at the Union Beach Hurricane Help Center despite that her and her husband’s home was among those demolished after suffering storm damage.
“The day that it was knocked down, all my neighbors came out,” she said. “It was heartbreaking. They cried with us.”
Stokes’ home also was torn down.
“At first, it was painful,” she said. “And then after the first crunch, it was a relief — that part’s behind you.”
Cheryl Cuvanov and her husband said they are thankful just to be in a rental house after Sandy destroyed their home.
“Just an empty lot and a mailbox — that’s what we own,” she said. “No house, no nothing.”
But the Cuvanovs are still paying their mortgage in addition to their rent. Like the Mihalaks, they say they haven’t received the insurance money they need to rebuild.
Maria McQuarrie and her family are living in a trailer as they fight with their insurance company and await a government grant. She said her 9-year-old daughter is still crying at night.
“Hoping to get back into my home,” she told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell said. “It’s nice we have a trailer, but it’s not home.
One year later, many residents and businesses in Sea Bright are still struggling to rebuild.
On the morning after Sandy, Mayor Dina Long said she was told by her emergency management director that Sea Bright was gone.
“What do you mean it’s gone? It can’t be gone,” Long recalled.
With hundreds of homes still boarded up and part of the sea wall missing, Long said many are worried about this year’s hurricane season.
“So far, we have not seen flooding yet in October,” she said.
The signature image of the aftermath of Sandy was the Seaside Heights roller coaster swept out to sea. As CBS 2’s Chris Wragge reported, progress along the boardwalk is obvious, even during the off-season. On Tuesday a crane was refortifying the boardwalk, which will extend another 200 feet out into the ocean.
Of course, the area was dealt a major setback in September when a major fire destroyed 50 businesses in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights and left much of the boardwalk in rubble.
Meanwhile, as WCBS 880’s Sean Adams reported, everything is brand new inside the parish center at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Seaside Heights.
“Basically, it was flooded with two feet of sea water,” Simon’s Soup Kitchen executive director John Salemi said. “All of our volunteers — our 300-person volunteer base, who all were affected by the storm — gave up weekends.”
Individual donors and foundations helped the soup kitchen replace its industrial stoves and refrigerators, tables and chairs.
It’s finally reopened following Sandy.
Simon’s Soup Kitchen serves 200 meals twice a week, but that number might go up as residents continue to struggle.
“Those people that live on what you might call the edge — the difference of a couple of meals a week might mean a warm coat, a new pair of shoes, maybe a rattle for their baby,” a volunteer with the Knights of Columbus told Adams.
BUILT BACK STRONGER
Belmar and Spring Lake were among the places that had their boardwalks washed away in an instant. But those towns have rebuilt their boardwalks, and their mayors told Wragge they are now better equipped to withstand a future storm.
In Belmar, pilings beneath the boardwalk before Sandy were dug in six feet. They’re now at 25 feet.
“We are much more confident. We built this the right way, and we built it to last,” said Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty.
In Spring Lake, a precautionary dune has been built on the east side of the boardwalk. On the west side, instead of having openings between massive dunes allowing people access to the beach, crews built walk-over boardwalks to protect the integrity of the dunes.
“The key for us is beach replenishment,” Spring Lake Mayor Jennifer Naughton said. “And that is, according to our engineer and all the experts we speak to, the single most important thing we can do to keep our beach, our Ocean Avenue protected.”
OTHER SIGNS OF RECOVERY
In addition to Seaside Heights, Wragge returned to the locations where he broadcast during the storm last year. At the Shark River Inlet, where the ocean churned at a violent rate and waves crashed over a retaining wall, the view was serene Tuesday, with boats passing quietly,
At Pure Beach in Spring Lake, Wragge watched last year as a dune was wiped away, a massive pavilion was destroyed, and the boardwalk and sand were pushed onto Ocean Avenue. Now, the road has been cleared, joggers have their boardwalk back, and some pavilions have been rebuilt.
Also Tuesday, the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund, chaired by the governor’s wife, Mary Pat Christie, announced eight new grants for nonprofit organizations to be used for housing assistance, mental health programs and social services.
So far, the fund has handed out $19.2 million to 80 organizations involved in storm recovery.
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