He’d probably never admit it, but Gov. Chris Christie was showing a touch of nostalgia Tuesday, just days before the fifth anniversary of the superstorm that defined his first term and rocketed him to national prominence. The governor gathered with members of his administration from those days to honor the first responders whose work during and after the storm undoubtedly saved lives.
“In 24 hours, from Oct. 29 to Oct. 30, 365,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in New Jersey,” he recounted. “2.8 million households were without power for a long period of time and another 116,000 New Jerseyans were evacuated and placed either with family members or in shelters across the state.”
Thirty-four people died and almost $37 billion totaled in damages and losses. It was the biggest storm to hit New Jersey in a century, wreaking unprecedented havoc and leaving indelible images from the shore at Seaside Heights to the streets of Hoboken to the north. Department of Transportation Assistant Commissioner Andrew Tunnard was down the shore that first night.
“Throughout the affected shore areas and on the barrier islands it was really scary. It was dark and it was silent, except for some dogs here and there. You could hear gas coming out of the broken homes and you couldn’t move,” he recalled.
“At Sandy, we were not only rescuing people but their pets,” noted Jim Reilly, who co-founded the New Jersey Task Force One Urban Search & Rescue Unit. “We were rescuing this one man who said, ‘I can’t leave without bananas. I can’t.’ And we were like, ‘We got to go,’ and he was like, ‘we got to get bananas.’ So, we waited. He went in the house and he came out with a 10-foot long, yellow boa constrictor. So we learned our lesson there. We take everyone and everything.”
Five years on, it’s easier to joke about that harrowing event, but Sandy is still real for thousands of New Jersey residents. The governor says only about 1,000 homeowners out of 365,000, are still waiting to come home. But George Kasimos, who founded the group Stop FEMA Now in the wake of the storm, says the governor thinks too highly of of his leadership.
“Just in Toms River, there’s 854 substantially damaged homes that have not one pulled a permit. There’s 4,000 or 3,000 people in the RREM program that don’t have a certificate of occupancy,” he said. “You cannot live in your home if you don’t have a certificate of occupancy.”
Asked what he would you do differently, Christie responded, “There’s a whole list of things I would do differently David, little things. I don’t think there’s anything big I would do differently. But, you know, I would have hired a different contractor in the beginning for the RREM program, they didn’t work out. I would have turned the gas off sooner on the barrier islands so less houses burned down, so there’s a bunch of small things I would’ve done.”
But in the main, said the governor, for a once in a lifetime storm, the state survived well and emerged, if you’ll pardon the expression, stronger than the storm.