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Taking Stock of Jersey Shore’s Recovery, Seven Months After Sandy

May 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie toured points along the famed Jersey Shore to see the recovery efforts following last fall's Hurricane Sandy. Judy Woodruff talks with New Jersey Public Television's Mike Schneider to assess the substance and politics of the president's visit.
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GWEN IFILL: Our next story takes us to the Jersey Shore. That’s where the president headed today to take a look at its recovery in the aftermath of last fall’s superstorm. Today’s visit was a less somber occasion than his last New Jersey tour.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rain and gray skies didn’t stop President Obama and Gov. Chris Christie from taking in the newly rebuilt Point Pleasant boardwalk. And in nearby Asbury Park, the president praised the recovery efforts.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You are stronger than the storm. After all you have dealt with, after all you have been through, the Jersey Shore is back and it is open for business. And they want all Americans to know that they’re ready to welcome you here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The visit came seven months after Hurricane Sandy battered the Garden State and caused $38 billion dollars in overall damage. Now Gov. Christie is busy touting the state’s comeback, part of a $25 million dollar marketing campaign aimed at enticing tourists to return for the summer.

But, as he told New Jersey Public Television on Friday, there is unfinished business as well.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: I will go to bed tonight feeling really good about the fact that all these boardwalks are done, the businesses are open and people can come to the shore and bring their families, but also feel for those people, that 10 percent or so of people who are still affected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president shared that sentiment today just 48 hours after he visited the tornado zone in Moore, Okla.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Part of the reason I wanted to come back here wasn’t just to send a message to New Jersey, but send a message to folks in Oklahoma. When we make a commitment that we have got your back, we mean it. And we’re not going to finish until the work is done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The October disaster initially brought Republican governor and Democratic president together, as Christie welcomed the assistance.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: I think he is determined to work with us to make sure that we rebuild the things we need to rebuild. And I am grateful for his partnership.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The praise drew fire from other Republicans, who said it helped the president’s reelection.

But, today, the governor insisted again that the state’s recovery was a bipartisan endeavor.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Everybody came together. Republicans, Democrats, independents, we all came together because New Jersey is more important and our citizens’ lives are more important than any kind of politics at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The state still faces a long period of rebuilding all that was lost, including some 360,000 homes and apartments damaged in the storm.

We get more about the status of the recovery in the Garden State and the problems that remain. Mike Schneider is the managing editor and host of “New Jersey Today” on New Jersey Public Television.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

So, Gov. Christie is saying that New Jersey is come back. He’s encouraging tourists to hit the beaches this summer. Has it come back?

MIKE SCHNEIDER, New Jersey Public Television: In many ways, it has.

If you go down to the shore, as I did a couple of days ago, and interview the governor there in Point Pleasant, exactly where he was today with the president, you get the sense that an awful lot of damage that has been done has been repaired. The beaches look quite similar to the way they did last summer in some places. The boardwalk has been repaired. The shops are open once again. The activities are there.

And, in fact, the crowds as of Friday when the weekend began, the Memorial Day weekend began, were there. They were there in good numbers. They were enthusiastic. And there was a general sense that we got through something really bad. Here we are, we’re about to begin the summer and all is well.

That’s not the case up and down the shore entirely. There are places where the damage is still profound and long-lasting. But for much of the state, as the governor is prone to say, for maybe 80 percent to 90 percent of the people in the state, life is certainly back to normal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mike, who are the 10 percent to 20 percent who are still waiting?

MIKE SCHNEIDER: A lot of those are the people that you see in these horribly damaged homes in places like Ortley Beach, places that really bore the brunt of this storm, places that are waiting now for the determination of insurance companies or FEMA, flood maps to be finalized, things like that, to make a — make a decision as to whether they have the money and the resources and perhaps the temperament to want to rebuild and to go back where they were, or whether they want to take their money, cash out, and go someplace else.

Those people in many cases are still waiting now in rental units, being helped along by some sheltering funds and what have you. But those are the people who are still waiting and wondering. And there’s no clear indication just yet when their stories will turn.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Overall, Mike, is the governor, are the people of New Jersey pleased with the role the federal government has played in all this?

MIKE SCHNEIDER: By and large yes, because you have got to remember, the governor went to bat to try to help the president get that money through Congress, that — those billions of dollars that were so crucial to rebuilding New Jersey’s infrastructure.

And there’s a sense here that the president delivered on his promises and the governor has made an aggressive and determined effort to make sure the money is well spent and goes to the places it needs to go to as quickly as possible. There are some places, though, where there still are great questions about where the money is, when the money will get to them.

Some people are very unhappy about the situation with FEMA and the flood maps, because a number of these places up and down the shore, many, many homes were told that they’re going to have to elevate 10 feet or pay what could be prohibitive flood insurance rates in the future. So those kinds of questions still loom out there.

But that notwithstanding, most of the people seem fairly enthusiastic and fairly — I mean, if you take a look at the governor’s popularity in the polls right now, you would have to say they’re happy with the job he’s done in regards to this crisis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the insurance companies, you mentioned, they’re — that it’s mixed, it sounds like, what you’re saying.

MIKE SCHNEIDER: Well, what you have is, you have most of the insurance companies right now say they have closed out the vast majority of the claims that were filed with them. In some cases, we’re hearing 98 percent of the claims have now been closed.

But, in some instances, that’s a procedural situation, where the claims have been closed without payments going out, because for some people in order to get the money that their policies themselves wouldn’t cover, they have to go to FEMA. But before they can get the funding from FEMA or some alternative source from the federal government disaster funding, they have to have their insurance companies say, no, you’re not entitled to it, we can’t help you.

The case is then closed, and they move on to the next step.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mike, there was a lot of attention paid to the politics of the president’s visit to New Jersey last fall right after Sandy, the fact that Gov. Christie was effusive in praising him and thanking him.

Today, first time the president goes back, was there something more behind today’s visit? What do you know about that?

MIKE SCHNEIDER: Well, I mean, you know as well as I that there’s always a little bit of — in the old days, when presidents had problems at home, they would go overseas. Maybe New Jersey in a way is the closest thing President Obama can get right now.

The governor himself, of course, is running for reelection. He’s way ahead in the polls, he’s way ahead in fund-raising. But they seem to have carved out a very comfortable working relationship. The governor, a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state and a president who may have some issues at the White House right now were coming back here where he can say, I saw your pain, I felt your pain, I got you the money, let’s take a look and see what our tax dollars have really gotten.

There could be something to that as well. But for the people here in New Jersey to see the two of them back together again, the governor’s not wearing his fleece, so the disaster apparently is over. And the president had a broad smile on his face. The people, in regards — in regards to this visit, seem to think it’s a sign that we have come back, that the shore is ready and that Mother Nature will cooperate and we would get some good weather, that all would be well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know a lot of people are glad to see New Jersey back so quickly after that terrible storm.

Mike Schneider, thank you very much.

MIKE SCHNEIDER: Thank you, Judy.