It was standing room only inside Manasquan High School’s gymnasium Thursday, where Gov. Chris Christie was greeted like a rock star by more than 700 adoring New Jersey residents.
The town hall attendees were treated to a two minute video presentation at first of Christie extolling his Sandy relief efforts throughout the Garden State in this election year, capped by his entrance from behind a blue curtain to the center of the gym with Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen playing in the background.
The governor reassured the crowd that he is ready to distribute $1.8 billion to devastated homeowners to begin “repairing these wounds”.
So far, Manasquan has spent more than $1 million to remove hurricane debris from the beleaguered shore town.
Some residents were wearing “Restore the Bayshore” and “Squan Strong” T-shirts, reminiscent of New Jersey’s fighting spirit and resolve to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy.
Christie said he adopted the FEMA flood maps to help begin the process of rebuilding, but said he does not agree with the maps because they need to be revised for flood prone areas.
“We are going town to town, neighborhood to neighborhood, and asking homeowners if they want to sell, but if they don’t want to do it, I’m not going to force them to sell, they don’t have to sell. I’m not going to use condemnation to do it. I want to work with them.” explained the governor.
Christie said 365,000 homes were severely damaged on October 29th when Sandy hit, leaving 7 million people without power out of 8.8 million residents with only 71 gas stations opened throughout the entire state at the time.
“For all intensive purposes, New Jersey was closed. The entire state was closed.” said Christie.
The initial FEMA flood maps, which could create thousands more in insurance premiums and force residents to raise their houses a few feet off the ground, are "too aggressive," said the governor.
Christie is pushing for the adoption of "fair" base flood elevation maps in place of what was adopted this winter.
The governor spoke of the importance of dunes and having them in place regardless of the "view." In some shore towns such as Long Beach Island and barrier island Toms River, some homeowners are disputing easements to build dunes.
"I’m not taking the property, but I’m not going to react kindly to people who complain about losing their view," he said of the dune easement issue. "We give up some of our own freedoms to make things better for society; I don’t think views of the ocean should be constitutionally excluded from that." said Christie.
The governor recalled how he felt that fateful October night and remembered a call from fellow Republican, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who advised him of his mission as governor, “This is why they hired you. They hired a tough strong guy from New Jersey and the reason why they hired you is for tonight. They are going to be glad they did.”
That’s when Christie told the crowd he realized, “This is no longer a job for me. This is my mission.”
Christie’s father, 79 year old Bill Christie was in the audience, beaming at his son as he took the microphone and consoled storm battered residents who asked about the progress of their federal assistance and looked to him for guidance.
Christie recalled another story for the audience about the time he was first married when he and his wife, Mary Pat Foster Christie, were living in a cramped studio apartment in Summit while he attended law school.
Jokingly, he remembered what his father-in-law said the first night he came to visit his son-in-law and daughter in their new apartment, “I cannot believe the dump he has our daughter in.” said Christie of his father-in-law’s initial reaction.
More than two decades later when Christie became governor, he relayed to the audience another anecdote, recalling the conversation he had with his mother-in-law when they all were inside the governor’s mansion together in Princeton.
Christie told his mother-in-law, “This is a lot better than that studio apartment in Summit.”
“Yes, it is Chris. It took you long enough.” Christie said was his mother-in-law’s response.
The governor summed up his town hall appearance with an emphasis that the Jersey Shore will be open for business this summer, just two months away, and said, “Maybe not just as it was, but with a show of heart." and added, "For many places in our state it will never be the same, but it could be better than before."