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Sandy Devastation Leaves N.J. Reeling as Normal Life Gets Slow Restart in N.Y.

November 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Up and down the New Jersey coast, towns begin what is expected to be a long process of recovery and rebuilding in the wake of devastating destruction from Hurricane Sandy. Jeffrey Brown and Ray Suarez report on challenges for affected communities. Plus, Hari Sreenivasan reports from Manhattan on the storm's impact on businesses.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The losses in life and property kept growing today in the wake of Sandy. The U.S. death toll reached 92 and the focus on physical damage shifted to New Jersey, where the monster storm blasted barrier islands and other waterside cities.

The massive force of the storm’s destruction along the JerseyShore came fully into view today. Town after town presented stark scenes of wrecked homes and boats, underscoring the long process of rebuilding that lies ahead.

One of those towns was the Long Beach community north of Atlantic City, where Army National Guard troops arrived to assist.

LT. ERIC SHAW, U.S. Army National Guard: A lot of devastation. The island was hit very hard. From what I understand, there is roughly 18,000 homes without power. There’s severe gas leaks. So right now, we are just trying to get everything together for the Office of Emergency Management Here and the different municipalities and just assist them with whatever needs they have going on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And even three days later, some Long Beach residents still could not believe the power of the storm.

WOMAN: This was the deepest water I have ever seen in my lifetime of being here. I was 11 in the ’62 storm and the water came an inch from our house. And this time it was a foot deep in our house.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Point Pleasant, the damaged boardwalk was a backdrop for workers who carried lumber and dug holes for new fencing. And shelters like this one at the BrigantineBeachCommunity Center were open for those searching for a place to stay.

MAN: Even though we don’t have any staff here, we have had incredible support from all the volunteers.

JEFFREY BROWN: To the north, in Hoboken, across from New York City, emergency and National Guard trucks moved through the flooded streets overnight. When Sandy hit, the storm surge on the Hudson River swamped a quarter of the city, leaving 20,000 people stranded in their homes and in the dark.

WOMAN: It’s really scary. We don’t have that much food. We prepared a little bit.

JEFFREY BROWN: For others across New Jersey, the loss of electricity meant no way to pump gas, which led to long lines at places where fuel was available.

WOMAN: An hour and 40 minutes almost. Crazy. I’m out of gas, though. I have less than a quarter tank, so I had to get out today.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Governor Chris Christie said today the storm also delivered an emotional blow. He spoke from the flooded of Moonachie.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: There’s nothing more precious to people than their homes. Homes are where their families are, the memories and possessions of their lives. And there’s also a sense of safety to home.

And you feel like when you get in that place and you close that door, that there’s a sense of safety there. That sense of safety was violated on Monday, with water rushing into people’s homes at an enormous rate of speed and people having to literally swim, climb, jump for their lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: And financial help was on the way.

The federal government promised eight New Jersey counties it would cover all costs for emergency power and transportation for another week. Meanwhile, in New York, new images from Long Island showed tons of sand washed ashore by the storm and major damage to beachfront neighborhoods.

At the same time, a return to heavy city traffic early today was a sign of progress. Police tried to manage the situation by turning away cars with fewer than three passengers on select bridges into Manhattan.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg pressed for people to be patient with the traffic and the broader effort to get back to normal.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I-New York: We are all in this together. We are desperately trying to help everybody. We’re trying to prioritize. First thing is safety. Inconvenience is down the list. If we had some people in the wrong places, it was the first day getting it going. Hopefully, it will be better tomorrow. You have to bear with us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, city officials warned that gridlock was likely to linger through the day and into the weekend, as the public transportation system comes back online; 14 of New York’s subway lines resumed limited service this morning. Fares were waived today and tomorrow to encourage people to use mass transit.

WOMAN: I walked about five miles in total yesterday to and from work, so I’m happy to have the subways back for the time being.

JEFFREY BROWN: But for these commuters outside the BarclaysCenter in Brooklyn, the subway still wasn’t an option. Instead, long lines stretched around the block as people waited for buses to shuttle them into Manhattan.

Things were looking up, though, for air travelers. La Guardia Airport reopened today. That meant all three major New York-area airports are now up and running, albeit not yet at full speed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to some on-the-ground reports from both states on how people are coping with the aftermath.

Ray Suarez begins with two dispatches from the embattled state of New Jersey.

RAY SUAREZ: We turn to Mike Schneider, the managing editor and anchor of “New Jersey Today.” He’s at their studios in Montclair.

Mike, has it really started to dawn on people now just how badly the state was hit?

MIKE SCHNEIDER, NJTV: I think so, Ray.

The fact is, is that you go through this kind of psychological roller coaster as the storm approaches and people gear up for what they believe is coming. Then they live through the event itself, and then the next day or so, they get outside and they take a look around and they realize exactly what has happened.

In this case, there was no way to anticipate what was going to happen because the destruction on this level has never occurred in this state before. It’s the worst storm in the history of New Jersey and according to some people may be, in fact, one of the worst storms ever to hit the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: How are the people in the worst damaged areas managing to get the basic necessities of everyday life, food, shelter?

MIKE SCHNEIDER: It’s tough, and it varies. In some of the more urban areas, you have seen swift boat crews actually go out, rescue these people and take them to shelters, where they will be fed and they will have a place to sleep.

And depending upon what level of shelter they go to, they might be able to get home sooner rather than later.

But at that this point, if you’re from the barrier islands, the ones that were hardest hit down the shore, Gov. Christie had issued an executive order telling everybody to get off the beach, his famous phrase. Some people didn’t, much to the governor’s consternation.

And, in fact, they were kind of trapped there right now. Some of them have been rescued as well. The governor at this point is talking about lifting some of the travel bans in some select communities. Curfews remain in effect in all those communities, however.

But for many of these people, it’s a case of getting to family or friends or shelters and hoping that those necessities will be there for them at that place.

RAY SUAREZ: Was today the day when a lot of people really got to take stock of just what they had lost, their first look at their homes?

MIKE SCHNEIDER: Well, it’s interesting you should say that, Ray, because so many people in the state don’t have power, it’s hard to say how many people know exactly how widespread this damage has been.

Gov. Christie took a tour yesterday of more of the inland areas before his encounter with President Obama. And he went to a town called Sayreville, where he went door-to-door meeting with the people who came out to talk to him, shake hands. He was bolstering their spirits.

But in some cases, there were people who broke down in his arms and cried. And he became more than the chief executive of this state. He became the consoler in chief, if you will. And that is a story that repeated itself a number of times.

Later in the day, the governor and President Obama took a helicopter ride over the area from Atlantic City down to an area called Brigantine ultimately, one of the areas where the governor had told people to get off, and in many cases they didn’t.

And he kind of jokingly, but firmly let them know when they were speaking a couple of minutes after the video you’re seeing right now, let them know that in fact he was not happy with them, but he’d give them a break this time around.

But it’s just a very, very kind of like — this is a — you know, it’s not a big state geographically, but it’s a very densely populated state and it’s a very diverse state when it comes to geography as well. The Highlands took a tremendous hit, because that’s where the winds seemed to be the strongest and trees came down and power is out there and there’s no telling when it will be restored.

Along the shore, of course, you have seen some of the damage that occurred there. Where once stood houses, there are now waves in some cases.

And then you go up farther north closer to New York City across the Hudson from that, and you have places like Jersey City and Hoboken, places that are populated now with an awful lot of people.

In fact, those two cities have been referred to as the most densely populated areas in the United States. And they were underwater. They simply did not expect that level of damage and destruction to come their way. And for a lot of those people, they had to be boated out as well. There’s no telling when they can go back.

RAY SUAREZ: You touched on it just briefly before, but I want to talk a little bit more about the restrictions, because often post-flood areas are dangerous to be in. There are things in the water that you can’t see. The houses themselves have gas leaks, sometimes electricity problems.

Are there tight controls on who can get in, who can get out and how long they can stay?

MIKE SCHNEIDER: Absolutely, Ray. In some of these communities, the restrictions remain in effect, no getting on, no getting off. In some places, the governor didn’t even have to issue that order. Bridges are out in a number of communities as well.

But in some of the video you are seeing behind me right now, they have had some enormously dangerous encounters with gas leaks.

Just this afternoon, one of the gas companies, New Jersey Natural Gas, announced that it was cutting off the gas flow to that area to try to stem some of those fires. As a result, I presume that means some people with gas service might lose that gas service for a while.

But in places like the ones you are seeing behind me right now, there are no people who could use the gas service there because no people basically could stay there. You’re taking a look at places that were lovely beachside communities, bayside communities, and now it’s basically houses lifted off their foundations and surrounded by the beach.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Schneider is with us from New Jersey.

Nighttime temperatures dropping tonight, Michael, so it’s probably going to be pretty cold for those people trying to shelter in their homes.

Thanks for joining us.

MIKE SCHNEIDER: Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: And, next, we get to Katie Zezima of The Associated Press. We’re talking to her by phone in Hoboken, N.J., because we couldn’t get studio facilities there.

Katie, unlike these shore communities that we have seen so much of, Hoboken is a densely populated place, built up, high-rises. What’s it like there?

KATIE ZEZIMA, The Associated Press: Well, the floodwaters have receded in Hoboken.

The streets are completely dry right now. But the mayor estimates about 95 percent of the residents are still without power. And that power could take us seven to 10 days to get back.

But FEMA officials are now here and working with the utilities, so they stress that it could be much sooner, and they want it to be much sooner than that.

RAY SUAREZ: There must be a lot of water in basements, in any place that is below ground level, though?

KATIE ZEZIMA: There is, yes.

There’s a lot of damage, as there is all around New Jersey, from rising waters. One other issue they have here in Hoboken is because there are a lot of high-rises, many people, especially elderly people, stayed in their high-rises. So now that there’s no power, they’re not able to get back down.

So there’s a really concerted effort to get around to especially elderly housing complexes and deliver those people food and water and medicine as well. They have a few pharmacists, nurse practitioners going around to people and helping them get the medication they need if they’re unable to get out of their homes.

RAY SUAREZ: Aren’t there towns very close to Hoboken north and south on the Hudson River that aren’t as heavily affected?

KATIE ZEZIMA: There are. Jersey City is one. Jersey City did get water, but at least in the downtown area, much of the power is back already. And it’s come back very, very quickly. And some of it actually came back yesterday.

So, there are towns around that definitely are not as hard-hit. They didn’t take on the amount of water that Hoboken did.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s head down the shore to SeasideHeights, where you have also done some reporting. What’s it like there?

KATIE ZEZIMA: A scene of absolute devastation. It’s a barrier island that holds SeasideHeights, OrtleyBeach, and a few other towns. And it’s absolutely devastated.

In SeasideHeights, there’s a famous pier, a famous boardwalk. For years, it has been used by families for summer vacation. And, more recently, it was made famous by MTV’s “JerseyShore.”

The boardwalk is completely destroyed. There were a number of amusement park rides there, one at Casino Pier. The rides are completely gone. They’re just not there anymore. And most dramatically, on the upper side, in the ocean, there is a massive roller coaster just bobbing in the waves.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the houses there are smaller-frame structures. They seem to be off their foundations, moved around, scattered, crashed into each other. What’s it like?

KATIE ZEZIMA: Absolutely.

There is a house that got pushed into the middle of Route 35, which is the main thoroughfare on the island. The house is completely turned on its side, almost like a dollhouse that could just be pushed over.

Roofs are buckled in. There’s debris in lawns. Roofs are kind of sheared off, almost like a sardine can. They just kind of came off and you can see them hanging there.

There’s been one very dramatic scene in OrtleyBeach. When you come over the bridge, there’s a red pickup truck that’s just down into a sinkhole. It’s really unbelievable to see this car sticking out of the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: Is anyone allowed to spend the night there, or is there a curfew in effect in SeasideHeights?

KATIE ZEZIMA: There is a curfew in effect.

A number of people did ride out the storm. And officials are still going door to door and doing search-and-rescue efforts to see if there’s anyone left in their homes.

Those who are there are going to be asked to leave, because there are still gas fires that are burning. There’s still gas lines and there’s still power lines down and a significant amount of damage.

The people who did stay there — I actually spoke with one — and he said — his exact quote was, “It was like being at Ground Zero,” just because the water came in, the winds, the rain.

He said it was just completely frightening being there. And he walked over the bridge to get there, because residents will not be allowed back until this weekend at the very earliest to gather all of their belongings and check on their homes.

RAY SUAREZ: Katie Zezima of The Associated Press, thanks for joining us.

KATIE ZEZIMA: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we go back to New York.

Hari Sreenivasan is in Manhattan today examining the impact the storm has had on businesses struggling with flooding and other damage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It got what, to here, to here?

MARCO PASANELLA, business owner: It got to about here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Marco Pasanella knows firsthand how high the water got in his wine store because he and his family rode out the storm in their apartment above.

MARCO PASANELLA: We were down there, and all of a sudden, we saw like kind of a sheet of water start to come through the front door.

And within minutes, it just, bam, opened up. And there was like four feet immediately. We ran upstairs. And then, when we looked out the window, it was all — all of South Street was just a black river. And it was scary.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The fear is gone, but he is left with the uncertainty of what will be covered by insurance as he tries to rebuild. He says it will cost him into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace everything in his store lower than six feet, where the water crested.

For his business, the timing could not have been worse.

MARCO PASANELLA: We’re entering the holiday season. And a wine and liquor store like ours can often have 60 percent of its yearly revenue in the last two months of the year. So, this is going to hurt us hard.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Around the historic South Street seaport neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, most of the businesses took a direct hit as the East River surged. Most of the walls will have to be replaced before mold and mildew can creep in.

RICHARD BERRY, real estate developer: Until they get power, until they get their electricity, until they clean out their systems, until they can get the board of health to take a look at the conditions to make sure everything is OK, it could take a couple of months.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Richard Berry helped develop the property featuring nearly a hundred apartments and a dozen small businesses. He says they still have to check to see if the buildings were moved by the river’s surge. Now the concern is whether everyone was insured properly.

RICHARD BERRY: Water damage insurance, which you cover automatically, is not flood insurance. If water comes up, it’s a flood. If water comes down, it’s water damage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: No one yet has a good figure on Sandy’s total damage, but it’s estimated to fall well into the tens of billions of dollars. Of that, more than $7 billion will be covered by insurance.

As much as a third of their insurance claims could come from New York alone. Those costs keep bubbling upward each night, as parts of the Financial District and the city’s transportation tunnels keep pumping millions of gallons water out.

And, as night after night, a third of Manhattan island remains without power, in the dark and out of work.

DAVID TROTTA, business owner: Oh, God. I mean, I have 30 employees out of work right now. And we probably won’t be able to get everybody back to work for another week or so. It’s unfortunate.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David Trotta knows that those are paychecks that matter for the employees of Jack’s Coffee, and he says they’re sprinting as fast as they can to rebuild a sense of community by getting back to business.

DAVID TROTTA: So, at some form, I would guess that myself and the old manager of this store will be here with like a six-foot table, a couple of burners and some kind of camp setup just making French press coffee tomorrow.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Just three days after Sandy, small signs of normalcy mean a lot for New Yorkers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there’s more about the storm online. You can scroll through the images of the overwhelming scenes from the New Jersey coastline. Those are on our website.