SEASIDE PARK, N.J.—Heralding the $265 million reconstruction of a major road along the New Jersey shore, the only question Gov. Chris Christie faced about the recovery from Superstorm Sandy was about how he planned to spend the Fourth of July vacation.
Christie made a joke about having dinner with the reporter, drawing belly laughs from a crowd of about 200 locals and tourists. The popular governor returned to the shore the next day to hand out grants to a bike store, a surf shop, and a Mexican restaurant.
While this town and other beachfront communities are in fact “back in business”—as $25 million in television ads throughout the Northeast proclaim—tens of thousands of people remain homeless more than eight months after the massive storm. Many live in towns that lack ocean views and, some say, have been neglected in Christie’s zeal to protect the shore’s vital economy. But lacking a sweeping, independent appraisal of the recovery, not even the governor’s struggling Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, has questioned his management of the crisis, focusing her attacks on his record on gay marriage, abortion, and the economy.
The $60 billion emergency aid package Obama pushed through Congress is covering the “Stronger Than the Storm” television blitz featuring Christie and his family frolicking on the sand.
"Everything is about the shore, the shore, the shore, which I understand, but there were a lot of other areas hit that aren’t getting enough attention,” said Gregory Nixon, founder of Helping Hands New Jersey, a foundation that helped rebuild dozens of Sandy-wrecked homes. “We also need to fix the working-class areas that are the backbone of the state.”
Insulating Christie and President Obama from these and other criticisms inevitable after a natural disaster: a mutually beneficial alliance between a Republican governor up for reelection in a blue state and a Democratic president seeking a legacy of bipartisanship. In two trips to the shore together, the men praised each other’s leadership, strolled the revamped boardwalk, and even tossed a football around. The feel-good, camera-ready moments contrast starkly with the venomous finger-pointing between the Republican administration under President Bush and Democratic officials in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It was in the mutual interests of the state and federal governments to do the right thing after Sandy,” said Mike DuHaime, Christie’s top political adviser. “I come from the school that says good policy equals good politics.”
Christie's team says he wisely focused on rebuilding and promoting the hardest hit counties along the ocean before the peak summer season. The area generates about half of the state’s $38 billion in tourism and vacation revenue, according to a 2011 report. The shore is also a nostalgia-washed symbol of pride for residents from all parts of the state and all walks of life.
“By taking care of the shore, the governor is taking care of the whole state,” DuHaime said. “There’s an understanding that the devastation was so bad that it’s going to take years to recover.”
A recent Kean University poll pegged Christie's approval rating at 70 percent, an astonishing benchmark for a Republican in a Democratic-leaning state. Critics say elected officials from both parties, as well as nonprofit groups, are intimidated by Christie’s poll numbers, power over state recovery funding, and relationship with the administration.
“There’s a lot of frustration about the Sandy recovery but the photo-ops kind of hide all of that,” said Jeff Tittel, a spokesman for the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “The media is more interested when Christie goes on Letterman and Morning Joe, and the president gives it all a nice gloss.”
While Christie has reaped political benefits from his rapport with Obama, he has also endured jabs from members of his own party. Leaders of the Conservative Political Action Conference shut him out of their annual gathering earlier this year that featured nearly every other possible presidential contender in 2016. Some supporters of Republican nominee Mitt Romney went so far as to partly blame his defeat on Christie’s effusive praise for Obama just days before the 2012 election.
“That’s a lot of crap,” said Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelahar, a Republican who attended the governor’s press conference in Seaside Park. “What’s he supposed to do? Thumb his nose at the president?”
While the shore has hogged most of the media attention since the Oct. 29 storm, the coastline is far from back to normal. A drive along the beach found some restaurants with “Yes, we’re open!” signs in the windows and other businesses completely abandoned. A smattering of multimillion-dollar homes looked to be in perfect shape, while just a few blocks away, weary, sunburned people were sweeping debris in front of homes missing walls and foundations.
More than 50 miles northwest of Seaside Park, South River is the town the recovery forgot. At least it feels that way to Ariel Torres, a retired forklift operator who lost his house of 25 years and everything inside it—the family photo albums, the comfy recliner in the living room, the brand-new refrigerator.
Living temporarily in a noisy apartment building he calls “a living hell,” Torres can’t stomach the sun-dappled television ads starring Christie. The “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign features a theme song, a Twitter hashtag, and signs branding the state from tollbooths to sand dunes.
“The shore may be done, but I still got no house,” Torres said, choking back tears. “You see all the commercials talking about the shore, but what about my house? That burns me.”
Torres and other inland Sandy victims face an agonizing choice: try to rebuild their homes up to costly storm-proof codes with limited money from insurers and the government, or take a government buyout that is unlikely to cover their expenses and a new home. His house has been flooded nine times. But it’s his house, and the one he shared with his wife of 43 years. Sick from a stroke a few years ago, she died the day after the storm. “It’s taking an eternity,” he said of the buyout offer. “I’m a nervous wreck.”
Nixon, a general contractor who founded Helping Hands New Jersey to help storm victims, gave a National Journal reporter a tour of South River and nearby Sayreville in his luxury SUV. Though it’s June, shrubs are brown from the brackish water that came up from the Raritan River. Retirees Jennifer and Russ Hayeck greeted Nixon like their long-lost son. “If it wasn’t for Greg I wouldn’t be standing here,” she said, her eyes watering as she surveyed her newly refurbished kitchen.
Nixon describes himself as a “hard-core Republican” and voted for Christie, but says the lack of attention paid to these central New Jersey communities has tested his politics. The same day in May that reporters swarmed the town of Seaside Heights to cover the removal of its iconic roller coaster from the ocean, Christie played carnival games with Britain’s Prince Harry of Wales on the boardwalk. “That was possibly his greatest media moment, and he just keeps riding that wave,” Nixon said.
In his trip to nearby Seaside Park one week ago, Christie acknowledged the awkward juxtaposition of the upbeat television coverage and the misery plaguing many storm victims. His office captured the well-received visit on video and circulated it to local and national media outlets.
“When we’re promoting the shore for tourism and business, it does not mean for a moment that we have forgotten the people who are still not back in their homes, whose businesses are still not open,” said Christie, flanked by construction workers wearing hard hats and fluorescent vests. “We have to be able to continue to promote this summer so that these businesses can get the income they need to survive while at same time acknowledge that we have a lot more work to do.”
After the speech, Christie was surrounded by well-wishers jockeying for photos and hugs. After a half hour of glad-handing, he got into a dark-windowed car, the rousing strains of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” filtering into the afternoon sun.