MOONACHIE, N.J. (AP) — In a whirlwind of post-storm decisions that might ruffle some feathers, Gov. Chris Christie announced a string of orders and plans intended to speed New Jersey’s recovery from Superstorm Sandy, including telling teachers to work on their days off and utilities to speed up the job of power restoration.
He secured loaned rail cars to use in place of some of the New Jersey Transit cars that were flooded, ordered natural gas shut off in devastated places and announced that military trucks would be used as makeshift polling places in places where regular voting spots are without power.
“We’re in the triage and attack phase of the storm, so we can restore power, reopen schools, get public transportation back online and allow people to return to their homes if they’ve been displaced,” he said Thursday in Moonachie.
He told utility companies they have to work harder to turn lights back on in the 1.7 million homes and businesses in the state that remain without power after Superstorm Sandy hit Monday, and told teachers to report to work on days they are entitled to have off.
The Republican governor, known far and wide for his forcefulness, has gotten mostly praise so far for his handling on the storm. President Barack Obama complimented him, Democratic New Jersey politicians have appeared by his side, constituents have hugged him and skeptical storm victims have credit to the state’s efforts.
“I’m from Florida, so we’re used to it,” said Konnie Jones, 47, who was holed in a shelter in Pleasantville after her apartment in Atlantic City was evacuated. “I’ll admit they did a good job, a really good, fine job so far.”
But some of his new actions will likely ruffle feathers.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and a group that has frequently clashed with the governor, announced Thursday that it was canceling its annual convention scheduled for next week in Atlantic City because of the storm.
The convention means an extra break in the school calendar. Some districts have four-day weekends to accommodate the convention, and others use it to scratch an entire week of classes by holding teacher in-service sessions on some other days that week. The result is a time that some people call “New Jersey Week” for Disney World because so many New Jersey families head to Florida then.
Christie said that because the storm forced unscheduled days off for schools, teachers should agree to return to the classroom on Nov. 8 and 9, the days the convention would have been held. He said he could invoke emergency powers to force them to teach on those days if they didn’t do it on their own.
It’s not clear what school districts will want to do, but union officials say Christie’s idea doesn’t work because so many students and parents have plans to be away.
The governor also summoned the leaders of the state’s three major electric utilities and said he told them that they need to work faster to turn back on power. The companies had restored service to about 1 million residential and business customers from the 2.7 million that were out of power at the peak Tuesday.
“I made it clear to them that whatever playbooks they had were to be thrown out because we’ve never faced anything like this before,” he said.
He said he was demanding that they tell him exactly how many more workers and how much more equipment they would need.
His administration arranged to bring both from 12 other states — even flying them in on military jets, in some cases. The federal government was setting up temporary housing for the workers on Fort Monmouth.
Before the speedup was announced, the utility with the most outages, JCP&L, was expecting it would take nearly two weeks to restore customers in some of the hardest-hit areas.
The governor also ordered natural gas service shut off from Mantoloking to Island Beach State Park, a stretch of an Ocean County barrier island where several fires have burned, fueled by leaking gas. He said the order will mean that New Jersey Natural Gas will have to pay to rebuild the natural gas system in the region.
Since Monday’s storm hit, Christie has scoffed at questions about how Election Day will work on Tuesday, saying he had other priorities to deal with first.
But on Thursday, his administration announced that it was extending the application to apply for mail-in ballots until Friday and was arranging for military trucks to be set up as polls in spots where the regular polls were without power or destroyed.
It’s unclear how many of the state’s 3,000 polling places will be affected. The change means that some voters will be using paper ballots instead of electronic ones — and that’s likely to extend the time it takes to tally results.
Christie also said Thursday that although Atlantic City’s 12 casinos all have electricity, they will not be allowed to reopen until drinking water in the city is found to be safe and power can be restored to the rest of the city.
The governor is also trying to bring back more of the mass-transit system that is so important to the state, particularly residents who work in New York City. He said the federal government would loan New Jersey passenger cars.
About one-fourth of New Jersey Transit’s cars were in flooded rail yards and are not ready to roll.