SEA BRIGHT, N.J. – President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an unlikely pair thrust together by a national crisis, toured ravaged stretches of the coast on Wednesday. The sun came out, the stock exchange reopened and the electricity crisis ebbed – but the rolls of the dead rose, and some areas were still coming to grips with Sandy’s staggering destruction.
In pockets of New Jersey, in particular, the storm’s scope was just becoming clear.
Half of Hoboken, N.J., birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra, was covered with a stew of river water, sewage and oil. Roughly 20,000 people were stranded in the flood but warned to stay put because of live wires. In little Union Beach, where a flood surge pulverized some houses, the principal of the local elementary school said it couldn’t reopen for three weeks.
Some small beachfront communities instituted new evacuation orders after gas leaks erupted amid the wreckage. In Sea Bright, a barrier-beach borough of 1,800 people south of Coney Island, officials labored to shut down gas lines.
“If we had a fire now, it would just burn,” said Sea Bright’s emergency management coordinator, Danny Drogin. “All it takes is someone lighting a cigarette.” Of Sandy, he offered this assessment: “It’s like Katrina without alligators. The damage is catastrophic.”
There were numerous signs, however, of relief and reinforcement.
The Pentagon said more than 10,000 National Guard troops in 13 states had been mobilized. The deployment included 10 Blackhawk helicopters, 100 pumps sent to New York to siphon water from tunnels, about 120 medical personnel and 573 vehicles. Another 40 Humvees were on their way from Fort Drum, in upstate New York.
Five hundred U.S. Department of Health and Human Services workers arrived to provide emergency medical care and public health assistance. Nearly 2,000 utility workers were on their way to Long Island from states as far-flung as California and Texas.
Military trucks lumbered into one town after another, ferrying food, water and generators, and going door to door in Hoboken to pluck out stranded residents.
“There’s been so much anxiety,” said Kim Giddens, who has lived in Hoboken, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, for nine years. Portions of the city have long been flood-prone, she said, but: “This is worst it’s ever been.”
Obama offered the assistance of additional military assets, including a Navy ship and transport planes, and said he had laid down a “15-minute rule” – meaning that every call placed to the White House by a mayor or a fire chief would be returned within 15 minutes.
“If they need something, we figure out a way to say yes,” the president said. Obama said four states – New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and West Virginia – had shouldered the worst of the storm, and the region’s first priority was restoring power. About 5.9 million homes and businesses were without power Wednesday, down from about 8.5 million at the height of the crisis.
“We are here for you,” the president said in New Jersey, in front of three boats stacked atop one another in the middle of the street. “We will not forget.”
Obama, in hiking boots, and Christie, in white sneakers, greeted each other warmly on the tarmac in Atlantic City, N.J., a few miles north of the spot where the 1,000-mile-wide storm landed Monday. Their aerial tour of the damages lasted for much of the day.
From Marine One, the president’s helicopter, they stared down at the ruins – floodwater churning below a gnarled roller coaster, boardwalks and piers that looked as if they’d been chewed up. Over Seaside Heights, N.J., between Atlantic City and New York City, flames burned unchecked in one abandoned neighborhood.
Obama and Christie continued their tour on the ground, including an extensive stop at a community center and marina in Brigantine, N.J., just north of Atlantic City. As storm victims poured out of homes and businesses, the president and governor offered hugs and reassurance. At one point, Obama stopped so that an eighth-grade boy could show him a video of the storm, which had folded up a nearby garage door like an accordion.
“It was scary,” the boy told Obama.
Both men have insisted that Sandy’s scope has made politics immaterial. Christie, with typical bravado, said he didn’t “give a damn about Election Day,” and had “bigger fish to fry.” But Wednesday had unmistakable political undertones, and it came less than a week before the presidential election.
Obama is a Democrat, and Christie is not just any Republican – he is a top surrogate for Mitt Romney’s campaign and was the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention this summer. He spent months filleting Obama’s presidency and, as of last week, when Sandy was already headed across the Atlantic, was still likening Obama to a naif, groping in the dark for a light switch.
Then the storm hit, and Christie has been singing the president’s praises ever since.
“I cannot thank the president enough,” Christie said on Wednesday. Of the president’s pledge to provide support until the Northeast rebuilds, Christie said: “I know he means it.”
Obama returned the love on Wednesday, singling out Christie’s “extraordinary leadership.”
“He has put his heart and soul into making sure that the people of New Jersey bounce back,” the president said.
The “partnership” between Obama and Christie, as the president put it, has prompted all manner of tea leaf-reading in the chattering classes, and no small amount of grumbling on the right. Some commentators labeled the governor “Judas Christie,” and Rush Limbaugh, a leading conservative voice, called Christie “fat and a fool.”
Romney campaigned in several Florida cities on Wednesday, and both candidates will be back in full swing today. Obama, who canceled three days of campaigning because of the storm, will try to compensate with a sprint through at least seven states by the end of the weekend.
Also Wednesday, Sandy’s U.S. death toll rose to 63. In the United States, the new victims added to the storm’s grim tally included a state legislative candidate in West Virginia, who was killed during a blizzard, apparently by a falling tree.
John Rose was a Republican candidate for the House of Delegates. Elections officials said it was too late to remove his name from Tuesday’s ballot. If he wins, they said, a GOP committee would submit three names to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, who would make an appointment.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that limited commuter rail service would resume immediately, with some subway service going back on line today.
Those were signs of halting progress – as was the sight of Mayor Michael Bloomberg ringing the bell to reopen normal trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
But an exhausting slog lay ahead for the city that is, by far, the largest in America. Lower Manhattan, from Wall Street to 34th Street, remained without power. Dark floodwater sat stagnant in miles of century-old subway tunnels. Bloomberg announced that the city’s public schools would be closed until Monday morning at the earliest.
“We’re going to need patience and tolerance,” Cuomo said.
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