Stoking anticipation that he will launch a 2016 presidential campaign, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) urged a conservative audience in New Hampshire this week to watch his YouTube videos to understand the full picture of who he is as a person and a state leader. On his YouTube page, Christie frequently appears wearing his signature fleece and speaking on boardwalks across the state on various occasions — including the first and second anniversary of Superstorm Sandy — about New Jersey’s ability to recover from the devastating hurricane.
“There isn’t a night that I go to sleep when I don’t think about the fact that there are still people out there who are not having the same privilege that most of us have again to sleep in a place we call home,” the two-term governor said in one speech in Ocean County, New Jersey.
But for Andrea Kassimatis, a Union Beach resident who has been living with her husband and three children in a trailer on her property for the past two years, there’s a different story to tell about Christie from what can be seen in his videos. For Kassimatis and many of the 15,000 New Jersey residents still displaced from the storm, Christie’s leadership has been anything but effective.
“He put funnel cakes before families. He worried about the boardwalks, he worried about New Jersey tourism before he worried about the residents and to me, that made me feel like we were forgotten,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s so frustrating because people think over two years later that it’s over, and it’s not. It’s not even halfway over for some of us.”
Kassimatis’ family home was destroyed by flood water and 225 gallons of diesel that washed through her property and “saturated everything.” For the first few months after the storm, her family stayed with friends, in a hotel and briefly rented a home, but decided to move a trailer onto their driveway for more stability — a situation she never thought would last for two years. The rebuilding of her home has been held up amid a series of permitting and funding issues with the state and battles with flood insurance companies.
“Like most people, we didn’t get our full flood policy like we should have,” she said. “We’re in the process of trying to sue the insurance companies, but it’s a long process. They treated us like we’re criminals… Almost like we asked for the storm to come.”
A recent report from the Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) found that Sandy recovery efforts are “far from complete” and 15,000 families in New Jersey are still waiting for aid from the state to rebuild their homes.
Rather than focusing on those in the state who needed support the most, Christie was worried about restoring tourism to the shore and boosting his national image, many residents said. Early last year, federal officials said they were investigating Christie’s use of millions of dollars in Sandy relief funds for ads to promote tourism that also prominently featured the governor. And the state is currently disputing the FSHC’s claim that 15,000 families are still waiting to rebuild, saying it’s “a gross and irresponsible distortion of the facts.”
State residents say the situation is much worse than Christie would ever admit. As individuals and families struggle to rebuild, Christie continues to praise the state’s recovery efforts and “take credit for other people’s blood sweat and tears,” Kassimatis said.
“In the first year when [Christie] was talking about how he helped these people get back in their houses — no he didn’t,” Kassimatis said. “You know how these people got back in their houses? They exhausted their bank accounts, they emptied their retirement funds, they had to tack an additional 10 to 20 years of working for these loans they had to take out and that’s for people who got in their houses within the first year. It has nothing to do with his recovery efforts.”
In 2013, Christie announced that the state would receive between $20 and $25 billion in federal Sandy aid, but Kevin Walsh, associate director of the FSHC, said Christie’s administration was not allotting the aid to low-income residents who were the most in need. “The recovery efforts have been mismanaged from the start and the governor in particular has disregarded the needs of lower income residents,” he told ThinkProgress. “Everything from the ways in which they hired and oversaw their contractors to just basic project management. It seems like there’s been a fundamental failure to manage the recovery process well.”
Still, Christie continued presenting the same talking points to the public about the state’s successful recovery. Joyce Uglow, an Aberdeen Township resident who is mentally disabled and relies on government benefits, knows firsthand how little the state has done to address the crisis.
“In February of last year, Governor Christie was at a town hall and he assured the public that everyone who had the most financial need had been helped,” Uglow told ThinkProgress. “I was watching the news and I became quite befuddled. I pinched myself and said, ‘yeah I’m alive.’ I went outside and I looked and I said, ‘nope no home.’ I opened up my wallet and found $2 in there. And it’s like, no, you’re wrong.”
Uglow also spent almost two years in a recreational vehicle on her property but is currently living with her daughter because she was told the vehicle had to move for rebuilding to begin — a process that is still not underway.
Lee Ann Newland said she and her husband were lucky to find a furnished rental home after the storm brought four feet of water into their Neptune, New Jersey ranch home and destroyed most of their possessions. But more than two years later, their rental assistance has run out and they are still waiting for their home rebuild to be completed. The process has been delayed repeatedly because of battles with the state and multiple appeals with their insurance companies.
“We fought every step of the way,” Newland said. “We haven’t accepted “no.” If someone tells us no, we’ll call 40 other people and ask questions and find a way to get around it. But I don’t know how many people are willing to do that. It’s time-consuming and we’re exhausted from just having to keep on top of all of this.”
Many New Jersey and New York homeowners have complained in the years since the storm that the flood insurers conspired against homeowners and altered engineering reports to avoid payouts for damage caused by flooding. Kassimatis said her insurer told her the damage was caused by the oil and not by flooding, although the oil was a direct result of the flood. In New York, a federal judge has ordered engineering reports to be turned over and the state’s attorney general has launched an investigation. In New Jersey, Sens. Robert Menendez (D) and Cory A. Booker (D) have put pressure on insurance companies to produce the draft reports. But Christie has not yet addressed the problem.
During his two terms as governor, Christie has developed a reputation as someone willing to push back against reporters, hecklers, and even constituents. Residents who most needed state assistance are wondering why he couldn’t bully the corporations withholding payouts.
“The governor won’t stand up to the flood insurers,” Newland said. “Let him put his big mouth to work in a positive way. You want to run for president? Show people you’re willing to stand up to these big corporations, which you’re not willing to do.”
Instead, Christie has blamed the federal government. The governor has called for an end to the federal flood insurance program, but the federal government is largely the only entity still willing to provide flood insurance to private agents, who then sell it to homeowners. Very few private insurers are willing to take on the risk.
In the wake of the storm, New Jersey launched the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program which set aside $1.1 billion of federal funds to help state residents rebuild their homes, allotting grants of up to $150,000 to homeowners. But the roll out of the program was plagued with problems, including employees who provided conflicting information, lost paperwork, extended delays in providing payment and rejections of people who should have qualified for aid. The FSHC found an 80 percent error rate in the state’s rejections from the program.
While Christie has attempted to blame the federal government and the National Flood Insurance Program for the post-Sandy recovery problems, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) has said the governor cannot shift fault away from the RREM program, which lacked transparency, frequently lost applications and mysteriously fired a number of contractors.
In January 2014, New Jersey ended its $68 million contract with Louisiana-based private contractor HGI, which was hired to run the RREM program. That contractor has caused many of the problems homeowners experienced in receiving aid, according to several FSHC reports. New Jersey residents raised questions about why Christie’s administration would hire a contractor located outside the state, but according to the Wall Street Journal, a law firm representing HGI donated $25,000 to the Republican Governors Association, a group Christie leads, the month after the contractor submitted its proposal to run the relief programs. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
New Jersey residents told ThinkProgress they experienced significant problems with the RREM program and grew frustrated with the convoluted process.
“Frequently my husband and I would call the RREM office at the same time and ask the same question and get two different answers,” Kassimatis said. “People didn’t know what was going on. There was a lot of confusion and presenting documents five times to prove a point.”
Uglow’s home was not in a flood zone, so she did not have flood insurance to pay for the damage to her home. Her homeowner’s insurance also refused coverage, so Uglow was forced to turn to FEMA, charities and the RREM program for aid to rebuild her home. But Uglow was waitlisted for a year and a half and then dealt with months of delays before receiving any kind of payment. Similarly, Newland said she and her husband were waitlisted and could not understand why.
Kassimatis said it felt like the employees were “given a booklet of excuses to use” because the system did not function efficiently.
“The people that they have in these housing recovery centers, they’ll ask you for certain paperwork, you’ll furnish the paperwork to them and then all of a sudden they’re asking for it again and a couple weeks later again and again,” Kassimatis said.
Already angered by Christie’s inaction, the three women still displaced from Sandy said they’re only planning on becoming more vocal as the governor gears up for a presidential run.
“I can’t stand it. Every time I see him, it makes me sick,” Kassimatis said. “People need to know what really happened or didn’t happen for that matter here.”
“God forbid he runs, I will be the anti-Christie campaign,” Uglow said.