While storm victims of Sandy find hope as some businesses re-open in hard-hit areas, debate on how to rebuild the shore has slowed the pace of recovery. PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown talks to NJ Today‘s Managing Editor Mike Schneider and New York Times‘ Sarah Maslin Nir on how federal disaster relief aid will be used to rebuild smarter and better.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we return to one of the biggest stories of last year, Hurricane Sandy and its devastating impact on New York and New Jersey.
Jeffrey Brown has our update on where things stand today.
JEFFREY BROWN: As winter storms bore down on parts of the Midwest and Northeast last week, flood waters again rose in the small coastal town of Sea Bright, N.J.
MAN: We went through the previous storm. And it was bad. I didn’t expect another one that quickly.
READ MURPHY, Sea Bright Office of Emergency Management: Winds were very strong last night. Plus, we’re more vulnerable now because we don’t have any sand out on the beach.
JEFFREY BROWN: Those sands were washed away some two months ago when Hurricane Sandy battered New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, killing at least 125 people in the U.S. and causing a minimum of $62 billion in damage.
Left behind are daily reminders of the storm’s impact. Just an hour from Sea Bright, another small town, Mantoloking, New Jersey, was badly damaged by Sandy. Of the community’s 520 homes, 60 were washed away and 139 remain uninhabitable. It’s still without electricity, gas, sewers or water.
MARK WRIGHT, Mantoloking, N.J., police chief: We’re the smallest town with the most amount of damage. We have to take it one step at a time. We can’t expect anything to happen overnight. It’s baby steps.
JEFFREY BROWN: On New York’s Staten Island, some of those who lost their homes spent Christmas in shelters.
KERRI MULLEN, New York Resident: This is actually the first time ever since 1916 there won’t be a member of my family in my home on Christmas morning.
JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, others have left New York for temporary homes in places like New Milford, Conn.
CONNIE DONG, former Staten Island resident: Right now, I’m just taking it all in. Just to even have my own little personal space is such a luxury. You change your goals. You change your priorities, your basic — everything changes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yet, some areas are showing signs of life again. In recent weeks, businesses in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, have been reopening to very grateful customers.
SAL PICCOLI, Customer: This is very good. I was hoping this one and then the pizza place down the street, hoping they would be there too, but not yet.
JIM SMITH, Ryan’s Deli’s Catering: Refreshing. We’re happy to be here. We’re trying to serve the people of our community and just resume business as usual in a very uncomfortable circumstance.
JEFFREY BROWN: To help victims across the region, there have been ongoing relief efforts, like this concert in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to rebuild New York’s devastated coastal areas.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I-New York: Let me be clear. We are not going to abandon the waterfront. We’re not going to leave the Rockaways or Coney Island or Staten Island’s South Shore. But we can’t just rebuild what was there and hope for the best. We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainably.
JEFFREY BROWN: To do so, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have asked for $82 billion in federal disaster relief aid.
We get a further update from two reporters covering the post-Sandy situation, Sarah Maslin Nir of The New York Times, and Mike Schneider, managing editor and anchor of NJ Today on public television.
Well, Sarah, start with the areas you have been looking at. What major problems persist weeks after the storm?
SARAH MASLIN NIR, The New York Times: Well, it depends where you look.
In New Jersey, some towns are still on lockdown. So they’re really at a standstill. People have been able to maybe cart out drywall, clean up some mold, but they can’t progress. They can’t figure out if they want to raise up their houses, do some mitigation to prevent this from happening it again, or just build it the way it was. They’re really prevented from moving forward at all.
Then, when you go to places like the Rockaways, while there’s been tremendous cleanup, again these same issues. People don’t know, are they going to get insurance money to fix the way they need to? Are they going to get extra subsidies in order to do these mitigating factors?
So the problems that persist are how to rebuild and when.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mike Schneider, how would you characterize it? And is it really different in different areas?
MIKE SCHNEIDER, NJTV: Very much so.
It depends on what part of the coast you’re on. It depends on whether you’re on the coast or you’re inland right now. There’s a growing sense here in the state of New Jersey that people are starting to get to the point where the storm has passed, the recovery has been promised. Now where is my check? When can I go back home?
There are thousands of people in this state who still can’t go home. Many of them now are starting to raise questions about how come the FEMA process, which was promised to be so smooth, hasn’t turned out that way? They have addressed these issues directly to governor.
And some municipalities as well are asking questions about, how come things haven’t worked out quite as well as they had hoped? If you cover disasters, this is not unusual. But what is I guess unusual right now is that here we are this far out, and still no promise of that congressional aid which has been supposedly in the works for a while coming to help make things better a little more quickly, and to raise people’s hopes as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mike, tell us a little bit more about that aid process, whether it’s government, whether it’s FEMA, whether it’s insurance coverage and claims. You’re saying that it’s not running as smoothly as people had hoped?
MIKE SCHNEIDER: Well, if you talk to a lot of the insurance companies here, they will tell you that they have handled a record number of claims for record amounts of money in record time.
And the statistics tend to bear that out. But that can’t take care of all people in all places at all time. And if your neighbor is back home, that’s fine and dandy for your neighbor. If you’re not back home, that still doesn’t make things quite so nice for you.
The FEMA process — we have talked to people from FEMA on the set here. And they have been very, very aggressive about wanting to get out there in the field and take care of things.
But Gov. Christie held a town meeting just a few days ago in which for the first time — and the governor has had a really remarkable relationship with the people of his state ever since this storm hit. He was out in the field. The pictures have become part of the legend of Chris Christie in this state about his empathy and sympathy for those around him.
But we’re starting to see now in town meetings that some people are standing up and saying, we expected this to work out this way. We had these numbers we were supposed to call.
But, suddenly, you know what? We’re getting the runaround, because FEMA says we can’t do it way. We have to talk to somebody else. Our insurance companies say, no, you have to talk to FEMA.
So, there are some people out there who are just a little — and with some justification, we might add, if you’re out of your home as long as they have been — they’re getting a little bit frustrated.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sarah, pick up on that. Do you hear similar such things? And is there — is there even a neighborhood or even a building that kind of crystallizes the situation for you?
SARAH MASLIN NIR: Well, I have actually been covering pretty extensively one housing complex called Ocean Village in the Rockaways.
When we think of the storm, we think of it hitting people in the floodwaters’ path, people on the ground. But, actually, people were stuck on the 19th floor of this housing complex in the dark, no running water, no working toilets, no way to get up and down, especially if they were elderly.
And I have been watching this place rebuild. And they’re still on generator power. Their transformers, deluged with seawater, are not going to be up any time soon. And it’s really emblematic of a lot of places out there.
There are people sitting right now with no heat. And there are scores of people — excuse me — thousands of scores of people without electricity still. And, as we were just saying, if one place is illuminated and cozy and warm, the building next to it can be ice cold and completely powerless. And that still persists.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, Mike, you know, going back to what both of you talked about, many people are still trying to make this decision about whether to rebuild, how to do it.
I mean, we’re even seeing recent — you know, the vulnerability is there even we see in recent storms. And that must complicate these — these decisions even more.
MIKE SCHNEIDER: Absolutely. It does. It raises that whole sense of vulnerability once again.
People in this part of the country for a long time heard about bad storms, watched bad storms, sympathized with the people who were being victimized. And now they are the victims. And it’s an entirely different sort of situation.
And right now, you have this growing, nagging question about, what do we do to rebuild? Gov. Christie has said, the shore is coming back. It won’t be the same as it was in our mind’s eye, but it’s coming back.
But I have spoken to Governor — former Gov. Whitman, former Gov. Florio, and others as well. And they’re starting to say, you know what? We need to rebuild, but we need to rebuild smart. Do we want to go back and try to replicate what was there in our mind’s eye? Is that something we’re capable of doing?
And even if we were, is that something that’s advisable to do? We have heard all the climatology reports about what is coming our way. Can we afford to go back and put that kind of money to rebuild that kind of infrastructure in an area that many say is likely to suffer the same fate time and time again in the not-too-distant future?
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, Sarah, that’s something that — something we have heard from Mayor Bloomberg as well: We’re going to rebuild, but we’re going to try to rebuild smart.
I’m just wondering, at ground level, when you’re covering this, do you hear much about that kind of long-term discussion, or is it too early for that?
SARAH MASLIN NIR: Well, look, being able to rebuild smart is a luxury. You have to have the money to do that.
And there are people who are knitted into these communities who probably inherited a house from a grandma or great-grandma. And they do not have the luxury to rebuild smart. They can barely rebuild at all.
I met a woman whose house is what’s called red-tagged. It’s coming down. She has no flood insurance. She has no homeowner’s insurance. The mortgage has been paid off forever.
She’s going to be relying on the charity of her neighbors. She is in Breezy Point, which was a very hard-hit community — 110 or more houses burnt down during the storm. But others are knocked off their foundation. And she can’t rebuild smart.
Even with the money that she’s going to get from FEMA for mitigation to prop it up a little or to put in a breakaway wall so that, when the water comes through again, as we have discussed, climatologists say it inevitably will, she doesn’t have that luxury.
She is going to rebuild again and she’s going to cross her fingers that this was a storm of the century.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just — in our closing minutes here, let me just ask you both about — I will start with you, Mike — what we heard when all this happened, that, you know, it showed some of the divisions, some of the class divisions in the area, but it also brought people together in some unusual ways.
These couple months later, where do you think things — where do things stand?
MIKE SCHNEIDER: New Jersey right now is still a rather tightly-knit state on this issue.
You know, one of the things that came up during some of these benefit concerts, Springsteen has talked about it, the governor has talked about it as well, is that the shore has all these unique places. There are places on the Jersey Shore where rich people have lived and will continue to live.
There are places down the Jersey Shore where the truck driver, where the garbage collector, where the schoolteacher, where all sorts of people of all sorts of different socioeconomic levels have lived for decades now.
And that’s the big question. And that’s — the kernel of doubt that is starting to creep into this, to the extent that it does exist, is whether or not — we know the rich areas probably will be able to sustain themselves, because they have the money to do so.
But for these other folks who are waiting for insurance checks, who are hoping to be able to put together the dollars and cents that they have in their savings accounts or investments to be ale to put this back on the face of the earth the way it was, or at least the way they would like it to be, can they afford to do it?
That’s a big question. And the commitment of this state to see that through will probably tell us a lot about who we are as a state.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sarah, last word from you?
SARAH MASLIN NIR: Sure.
Right after the storm, there was this incredible onslaught of people from all over New York City and elsewhere into these what are essentially very impoverished areas that happen to coincide with where the storm hit hardest.
And there was a group of people, hipsters who were helping — they called them “helpsters,” because they had just transformed into this squad of skinny jeans, helpful people.
I haven’t seen them very much in the numbers that I saw in the very beginning. It has sort of lost its trendiness. It’s not on the forefront of people’s minds.
Another way that divisions are going to reinsert themselves again is that, with people getting out of their houses, the real estate market is incredibly depressed in many waterside areas, where people don’t know what the future is going to be of these places.
So people are selling their houses to the first taker. And you have what can be sort of predatory purchases. And that’s going to change the demographics of these areas, because you have working-class areas that can’t afford to rebuild and the people with money are going to be able to come in and purchase these homes and really change the socioeconomic landscape of what were working-class storefront homes.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sarah Maslin Nir of The New York Times and Mike Schneider of “New Jersey Today,” thank you both very much.
SARAH MASLIN NIR: Thank you.