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opens in a new windowOcean County Sandy Survivors at Governor’s Address Tell Christie to ‘Finish the Job’ of Rebuilding

Local Activists Get Their Word Out to National News Media in Trenton

By JON COEN | The Sandpaper

It’s one of the lasting images from Superstorm Sandy – as iconic as the Jet Star roller coaster fallen to the sea, or flooded subways in Lower Manhattan. It was Chris Christie greeting President Obama on the tarmac of Atlantic City International Airport the day after the storm.

It’s possible that this highly publicized visual carried Obama to his second presidential victory a few weeks later. Some say it helped Christie’s 2013 Republican landslide against Barbara Buono in our blue state. But that isn’t the first image of Chris Christie that comes to mind for many New Jersey residents today, especially not from coastal communities that are still recovering from the ordeal. The images that many have in their heads were on display at the State House, prior to the governor’s State of the State address.

Lisa Stevens of Little Egg Harbor Township held two signs. One was a picture of herself in her own home, amid a dragged-out state of rebuilding. The other was a reference to Christie’s often found spot in the Dallas Cowboys’ owners box, reading, “If We Were Cowboys, Would You Cheer For Us?” Stevens is not happy with his record of late.

“This isn’t how I planned to spend my retirement,” said the 54-year-old in front of the State House at midday on Tuesday.

Stevens was born and raised in New Jersey, went to college in New Jersey, and worked for the state until retiring a few months before Sandy put 20 inches of water in her home. The initial aftermath was a blur of FEMA, insurance adjusters and contractors. After partially rebuilding, she applied to the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program, only to call several months in and find that they had lost her paperwork. Once that was remedied, she was given three options and chose Pathway C, which would let the state handle the raising and rebuilding of her house.

“I trusted that they were going to get it done – and that option claimed I would be completed in 90 days. Two years later, and I barely have any idea when it will be done,” she explained.

The protest was dubbed “The People’s State of the State,” sponsored by a coalition of New Jersey nonprofits that feel life for New Jersey families isn’t what Christie would claim. It served to bring awareness to everything from affordable housing to underfunded education and failing infrastructure, strategically held before Christie gave his State of the State at 2 p.m. And if the objective was to get the message out, it was successful, as local activists were interviewed by CNN, FOX News and CNBC.

Stevens, along with Paul Rueda of Barnegat and Hank DePasquale of Brant Beach, with Sandi Mackay, Christine Biedebach and Joe Mangino of Beach Haven West and others from Ocean and Monmouth counties, represented our area as part of New Jersey Organizing Project’s “Finish the Job” campaign.  NJOP’s Director is fourth-generation Cedar Bonnet Island resident Amanda Devecka-Rinear and they are demanding accountability from the state government in delivering the $1.1 billion in federal grant money that was allotted to rebuild and elevate homes. Only $709 million of that $1.1 billion has been awarded, and of that, only $323.2 million has gotten into the hands of those who qualified.

They all have different stories. Mackay lost her husband to a stroke a few months after the storm. Mangino turned his volunteer gutting army into a lasting local presence with the nonprofit START. The weather didn’t stop 80-year-old DePasquale from holding his sign. And Rueda, a contractor with John Paul Builders, has heard countless heartbreaking tales of families trying to rebuild.

“Some of these people are older and don’t think they’ll live long enough to see their homes completed,” he explained.

Christie won fans when he went to Washington, D.C., to passionately lobby for money to rebuild New Jersey and New York in late 2012. But his critics say he has slipped since then. According to New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs, of the 40,500 permanent residences that were either destroyed or damaged, only 328 have been completely rebuilt. Twenty-six months later, some of those who dealt with flooded homes are now struggling with paying rents and storage fees on top of taxes, mortgages and insurance while they wait. The RREM program is the most recent in a series of bureaucratic quagmires these families have found themselves in.


Not Sitting Down
Or Shutting Up

Jim Keady of Spring Lake, who owns the Lighthouse Tavern in Waretown, is a key part of NJOP. He was the activist whom the governor told to “sit down and shut up!” at a Belmar press conference on the two-year anniversary of the storm. Not only did the incident put the ease at which Christie could be drawn into a shouting rage into the national spotlight in the early days of his 2016 presidential bid, but it also highlighted the harrowing ordeal that many Sandy survivors are going through.

Keady stood with people from all over the shore area on Tuesday, holding his own sign that read “I’ll Sit Down and Shut Up When You Stand Up For Sandy Victims.”

Many in New Jersey are wondering why Christie is spending so much time traveling to such places as New Hampshire, Iowa and most notably Texas, when the suffering is being so prolonged in his own state.

“I think Sandy is in Christie’s rearview mirror,” said Stevens. “He talked a good game, but rebuilding doesn’t just mean 5 miles of boardwalk in Seaside Heights.Our bay is really where the storm made the left turn. He came to Little Egg Harbor on the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy; that was the first time he had been in our area. And as he spoke, I thought, ‘Why don’t I believe him?’ It was because there was an election that month. He did what he had to do to get reelected.”

One of Christie’s aims at Keady (and the Finish the Job campaign) was that they only show up when the cameras are on. But the NJOP has actually spent time talking to other elected officials in New Jersey. Devecka-Rinear, Mackay, Keady, Stevens and Mangino spent more than two hours with Sen. Robert Menendez’s adviser and chief of staff in Newark last week. Divecka-Rinear claims they were very receptive, and the group will continue to reach out to elected officials.

Tuesday on the capitol building steps, all the activists from a coalition called Better New Jersey talked about unsafe bridges, poor healthcare facilities, lost jobs, underfunded schools, and gutted state employee pensions. They held signs and sang one song in the bitter cold shadow of the State House.

“Christie’s corrupt!” was shouted from the crowd.

When Christie actually gave his State of the State address inside, he concentrated heavily on low property taxes, success in tackling the drug epidemic, and the major improvements in the city of Camden. He made several mentions of his interactions with folks in other states. He only mentioned “the shore” as one of the state’s assets along with proximity to a large market and highly educated work force.

“We have grown our economy, and more people are working, supporting their families and knowing the power of going to work every day in New Jersey today than one year ago. We have done this by holding the line on government spending and government employment. We also extended the successful cap on a key driver of property tax growth. And we passed real criminal justice reform in New Jersey,” stated Christie.

But Superstorm Sandy and her survivors were not part of his checklist.

“I think it’s unbelievable,” said Keady, who was present at the State House for the address, “given the fact that there are 40,000 New Jersey families who were impacted by Hurricane Sandy, and in the RREM program there are 14,800 families that are still looking to rebuild; only 323 of them are back in their homes. It’s an absolute embarrassment and disrespect to the citizens of New Jersey that the words ‘Hurricane Sandy’ were not mentioned once in the governor’s comments today.”

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