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Hurricane Sandy: Northeast struggles to its feet as sun comes out

October 31, 2012|By Brian Bennett, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Scott Gold

 SEA BRIGHT, N.J. — President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an unlikely pair thrust together by a national crisis, toured ravaged stretches of the coast 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. About 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 wouldn’t reopen for three weeks.

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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.

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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. Forty  Humvees were on their way from Ft. 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 rescue 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, but “this is worst it’s ever been,” she said.

Obama offered additional military assistance, including a Navy ship and transport planes, and said he had made 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 damage 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. In 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 a long 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  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.

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