Christie: 'I get' Sandy victims' frustration

Gov. Christie appeared at the New Point Comfort Fire Station in Keansburg to meet with frustrated residents still waiting to receive Sandy recovery aid.
Gov. Christie appeared at the New Point Comfort Fire Station in Keansburg to meet with frustrated residents still waiting to receive Sandy recovery aid. (MEL EVANS / AP)
Posted: February 06, 2014

KEANSBURG, N.J. The scars of Sandy are visible in this Monmouth County town of small bungalows and narrow streets: empty houses, some condemned with a spray-painted "X" to keep firefighters from entering, a few newly elevated, others where people live in an RV parked out front.

It was to here that Gov. Christie and two cabinet members key to Sandy recovery traveled Tuesday afternoon and attempted to explain their much-criticized process of handing out money to storm victims.

"I get it," Christie said at three different points during his appearance at the New Point Comfort Fire Station. His reception had been a bit frosty.

Christie said he gets that people such as Irene Neikam, 67, are tired of going back repeatedly to Sandy recovery centers in places like Freehold to submit yet more information. He said he gets that people not back in their homes don't care how many others may be farther along in the process. He said he gets the frustration, the whole new set of "pressures because of what this does to you." He blamed some of it on a "math problem" that has left the state with a $19 billion gap in funds vs. damage.

"All of this is a work in progress," he said. "None of this is perfect. . . . If I got $37 billion, well then, everybody could be treated equally."

Christie, along with Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin and Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable, said they would listen to comments at three public sessions set for next week on the second wave of Sandy-relief funding: $1.46 billion, including $390 million for the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, & Mitigation (RREM) program. The infusion of money is expected to get 3,000 people off the waiting list.

The state quietly fired its widely panned contractor, Hammerman & Gainer Inc., in December and plans to take over the administration of the grant program.

But when Antoinette Chenoweth of Port Monmouth, who sat with two large, blue folders of Sandy-related documents on her lap and who is still on the waiting list for a grant, attempted to ask Christie a question, he shut her down.

"I'm definitely not taking questions," he said.

He invited her to meet with him afterward, and she was taken to a private area, where staff, the commissioners, and Christie spoke with homeowners afterward. (He ignored the shouting about "using Sandy money as a slush fund" from Nate Kleinman of Occupy Sandy.)

Chenoweth, a flight attendant still out of her home, said she was upset that Sandy money had gone to things like repairing the Seaside Heights boardwalk after a fire instead of to homeowners. "I'm still waiting for money," she said.

She ended up speaking with Constable, who urged her to plug a $30,000 gap in her funding by contacting the Long Term Recovery Groups, which have hundreds of thousands of unused charitable donations.

Christie blamed the delays in the grant funding on the necessity of documenting need and prioritizing on that basis, and, as he has in the past, on federal requirements enacted post-Katrina to prevent fraud.

"We live among human beings, some of us are good and some of us who are not so good," he said about the post-Katrina process. "Some of us who are not so good decided to take advantage of these programs."

In the crowd, one homeowner snickered and said Christie - whose administration has been accused of improperly distributing Sandy aid - "failed to see the irony" of his words.

Christie said that he still spends 40 percent of his time on Sandy and that "I haven't made every right decision in the last 15 months."

Constable and Martin stayed after Christie had left, to speak with frustrated residents. In Keansburg, Constable declined to discuss reasons for terminating HGI's $68 million contract.

In a statement issued after the event, DCA said, "HGI's main role was to operate the nine Housing Recovery Centers, oversee application intake, and facilitate the grants awards process." Assisted by other contractors, DCA personnel have taken on those roles, and the transition has not interrupted recovery efforts, the statement said.

Privately, state officials said they did not understand the outrage over HGI's termination, which was done without an announcement, since there was widespread agreement that the company did a poor job. The contractor had been similarly fired post-Katrina.

The people who got a seat at the table where Christie spoke privately and for cameras seemed to think the governor had heard their message.

"I got a warm feeling," Deputy Mayor James Cocuzza said after speaking to Christie about the frustration of people in his town. He just got his $50,000 grant last week from the state's RREM program. Two volunteers from Union Beach patted him on the back and posed for pictures.

But others were not feeling the love from a subdued Christie - in suit and tie with no sign of any fleece, blue or yellow.

"I just think it's all garbage," said Kathy Oliva of Keansburg, still housed in a rental - denied grant money, she said, because her brother is on Social Security and lives with her. "They promise you the world and they give you nothing."

The three public hearings will be: Feb. 11, 4 to 7 p.m., at Richard Stockton College in Galloway; Feb. 12, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, and Feb. 13, 4 to 7 p.m., at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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