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 The 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 Barack 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.
"When I needed my government - the people I voted for - they failed me," said Danielle Vaz, of Toms River, who brought her 4-year-old autistic son along to show how months of being displaced has severely affected them both.
Christie refused to send an administration representative to any of four post-Sandy hearings because, he said, the sessions were led by Democrats out to score political points. He did assign staff to monitor the hearings and follow-up with anyone who complained.
"I get the that fact that until any one particular person you speak to is back in their homes and their lives are back to normal, they are going to be incredibly frustrated and upset and, in some cases, distraught," he said. "I think most people, if you talk to them, would say we've done a good job. Not a perfect job, but a good job."
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, he 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. About 4,000 homeowners are expected to benefit eventually.
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. Also, environmental and historical reviews are required for post-Sandy rebuilding of homes and businesses. Those reviews weren't required after Katrina.
Though he said he understands the insistence on increased oversight, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, said he would have done some things differently. For example, he would have cut checks to homeowners instead of builders in the remediation program but required residents to keep living in their homes for a certain time as a condition of receiving the grant.
"To the victims, I'd say you're right, it is too slow, and I wish that the federal government would allow us the flexibility to get you aid more quickly," Christie said.