TRENTON, N.J. – Gov. Chris Christie says he understands victims’ frustrations a year after Superstorm Sandy but maintains that his administration isn’t to blame for delays in aid reaching victims.
In an interview with Associated Press as the anniversary of the Oct. 29 megastorm approached, Christie blamed Congress, which took three months to approve a $50.7 billion relief package for the region, and a thicket of red tape put in place to prevent the type of fraud that occurred after Hurricane Katrina.
“We’ve done everything we possibly can, and I think in the immediate aftermath did a very good job,” Christie told the AP. “Since then, we’ve kind of been hostage to two situations, the delay in the aid itself and then what I call the ‘Katrina factor,’ which is the much more detailed and difficult rules surrounding the distribution of the aid.”
Christie, widely believed to be positioning himself for a 2016 Republican presidential run, saw his popularity skyrocket after Sandy as he donned a blue fleece pullover and doggedly led the state through its worst natural disaster, a freakish storm that plunged 5.5 million state residents into darkness, damaged 360,000 homes and businesses, and disrupted gasoline supplies for days.
Christie was in many ways the face of the storm, whether he was embracing President Obama during a visit to the battered coast or consoling a tearful 9-year-old girl who had lost her house and told the governor she was scared.
Lately, though, some of his admirers have become detractors.
Frustrations boiled over at a hearing last week on the pace of the recovery in Toms River, one of the hardest-hit communities. Storm victims there complained of insurance companies trying to lowball them on payouts, and stringent aid rules delaying them from rebuilding.
“These programs are intended to help; they’re not. They’re just putting more obstacles on you,” said Vincent Giglio, a doctor from the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, which was devastated by the storm and remains sparsely populated a year later. He said getting insurance payouts and government aid has been daunting.
Since the first $1.8 billion in federal recovery aid was approved, New Jersey has set up 17 separate programs for homeowners, renters, small businesses, local governments, nonprofits and developers. Counselors and administrative staff who were rude or unhelpful have been fired, Christie said.
The largest homeowner aid program, which provides as much as $150,000 for reconstruction, repairs, to elevate a house or protect against future flooding, has been criticized for not making any payouts from a $600 million allocation. One hundred grant applications totaling $7.8 million in assistance were signed last week, and the administration expects 200 more to be finished within days.
Asked about the delay, Christie said cumbersome federal requirements are responsible.
After Katrina, homeowners proved their losses and got their money, he said. Under the new rules, checks go directly to builders, so the jobs are being awarded through public bidding, slowing the process.
Meanwhile Sunday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer said New York State will get $6.3 billion in Superstorm Sandy aid in 2014.
He said Sunday that $1.4 billion in Community Development Block Grant funds will go directly to homeowners affected by the storm.
He said $2.5 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will go to New York communities in 2014 to pay for permanent projects as well as reimbursement for repairs already done.
Schumer expects at least $1.5 billion in storm-related transportation projects in New York to receive funding.
Smaller pots of money will go to fund coastal protection projects, green infrastructure and health-related projects.
Schumer said another $207 million will be allocated to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Manhattan.