Obama, Christie join forces to reassure Jersey Shore residents hard hit by Sandy

President Obama embraces Donna Vanzant while touring Brigantine, N.J. "I want to just let you know that your governor is working overtime to make sure that as soon as possible everybody can get back to normal," he said later. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP
President Obama embraces Donna Vanzant while touring Brigantine, N.J. "I want to just let you know that your governor is working overtime to make sure that as soon as possible everybody can get back to normal," he said later. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP (PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP)
Posted: November 01, 2012

In a scene filled with symbolic significance both for flood-ravaged Jersey Shore residents and the politics-crazed media, President Obama joined Gov. Christie on Wednesday for an aerial and ground tour of Sandy's wrath.

Their bipartisan afternoon hugging Brigantine residents and surveying the state's coastline from Marine One came just six days before the Democratic president faces a neck-and-neck election against Republican Mitt Romney. The pairing elicited shock online and on TV, but gratitude on the ground.

Christie, after all, delivered the keynote speech at the GOP convention and had spent the fall belittling Obama on Romney's behalf - but that was before the biggest natural disaster in New Jersey history.

Millions of residents remain without power, property damage will be in the billion-dollar range, and thousands of people are stranded in shelters. Neighborhoods remain flooded, gasoline has become hard to find in some places, and many schools are still closed.

But Wednesday was all about Christie asking for help and Obama promising that the federal government would be there.

"We are here for you and we will not forget. We will follow up to make sure that you get all the help that you need until you've rebuilt," Obama said.

Since Sunday, Obama and Christie have spoken six times by phone, and the governor has been vociferous in his praise of the president's swift assistance. FEMA has 2,000 personnel already on the ground, with fuel and generators on the way to hospitals and water-treatment facilities. Obama said military assets could be made available to speed up restoring power to New Jersey and also hard-hit New York and Connecticut.

Christie also talked to Obama about using more money toward buying rather than rebuilding, a possibility that came up earlier in the day when he was touring storm-ravaged Sayreville, a Middlesex County town southwest of Staten Island that sustained severe property damage in the five-foot storm surge Sandy brought.

While showing Christie what was left of his home, Cody Buck expressed the wishes of many residents in saying that the neighborhood, after sustaining water damage in three storms in three years, should be turned into soccer fields.

"I think, Governor, we need to level the whole neighborhood, give everybody a check, and get out of here," he said.

When asked later, Christie said the state had spent $60 million buying out homes in flood areas during his administration.

"People are going to have to make choices. . . . We've got to make hard choices. They've got to decide: Do they want to rebuild? Or do they want to move out? I still believe that's an individual choice. I don't think it's a governmental choice. I'm not condemning their property."

Christie toured one woman's soaked house at her request. He also met a woman whose basement apartment is now a pool, a 95-year-old who was rescued by boat, and a boy with cystic fibrosis who is without the electricity he needs for his breathing machine.

One woman was crying hysterically until Christie took her in his arms.

Later in the day, after touring Brigantine, a city just north of Atlantic City that felt the brunt of Sandy, Christie thanked Obama in front of a group of reporters and residents.

"He has worked incredibly closely with me since before the storm hit," he said.

For his part, Obama praised Christie as responsive and aggressive.

"He's put his heart and soul into making sure the people of New Jersey bounce back even stronger than before," Obama said.

Obama and Christie met on the tarmac of Atlantic City International Airport in the early afternoon. They boarded the presidential helicopter and flew over the Atlantic City skyline, and then over Beach Haven on Long Beach Island, where they saw streets under water and walkways torn apart.

Over Seaside Heights, where Christie has vacationed since he was a child, they saw damaged amusement park rides, flattened homes, and beachfront property with decks yanked off, according to a White House pool report.

"I showed the president places along the Jersey Shore that are just unbelievable to see - to see the boardwalk on Point Pleasant just gone, to see boardwalks in other small towns just lifted and thrown three or four blocks," Christie said at an evening news conference.

Christie said the process of rebuilding had begun. Although reconstructing boardwalks will be a local decision, he said: "I will tell you, a lot of the places destroyed are part of the fabric of the state. And if you take them away, you take away the heart of the state."

On the ground, Obama and Christie met with displaced residents at the Brigantine Beach Community Center. Obama told them: "I want to just let you know that your governor is working overtime to make sure that as soon as possible everybody can get back to normal."

The effect of their presence was striking.

"When you're stuck in something like this, you feel helpless," said Bob Lund, who shook hands with the president. "For them to come right in the middle of this means a lot."

Brigantine residents bundled up, packed thermoses, and camped out by the marina waiting for Obama's appearance.

Steve Kabala, collaring his dog, Sandy, in his front yard, said the neighborhood had weathered a tough few days. An unmoored boat from the nearby marina had sped down the street and only just missed his house during the storm, he said. He spent the day ripping up carpeting in his flooded garage and thought it was "great that Obama came."

"Hanging out with Christie is a little weird, though," he said, and laughed.

Online and on cable TV news, election watchers expressed shock that the two politicians would be seen together. Asked Wednesday night about the unusual nature of being with the president right before the election, Christie dismissed it.

"The president and I are big boys, and we're in the business of politics, so we're both aware of the fact that the election is in six days," he said.

And though he asked Obama where he was campaigning next, he said, most of the time they talked about "getting things done."

He added: "This was as comfortable and relaxed an interaction I've had with the president since I've known him."

But the avid Twitter user said he was "aware of all the atmospherics."

"I'm not in a coma," he said. "But the fact is, I don't care."

New Jersey Storm Updates

Gov. Christie on Wednesday

spoke of these developments in recovering from the storm:

Because several water facilities are still on generator power, Christie signed an executive order limiting statewide water use, including a temporary ban on outdoor car-washing and lawn watering.

To address a shortage of diesel fuel and gasoline stemming from power outages and hurricane-related damage, Christie waived licensing requirements that restrict the purchase of fuel from out-of-state suppliers.

The majority of NJ Transit bus service will resume Thursday. Restoring train service will take longer.

Just over 2.3 million New Jersey households were without power Tuesday night.

Christie spoke to more than a half-dozen governors Wednesday who promised to send utility crews to the state to help get electric lines back in service.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency began distributing generators Wednesday night to water-treatment facilities, wastewater-treatment facilities, and hospitals.

Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/christiechronicles.

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