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Christie at Berkeley Town Hall: Federal Regulations Holding Up Sandy Recovery

Governor calls for federal government to get out of flood insurance business at subdued town hall meeting

Gov. Chris Christie addresses a crowd of 500 in Berkeley Township, March 4, 2014. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
Gov. Chris Christie addresses a crowd of 500 in Berkeley Township, March 4, 2014. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
Gov. Chris Christie's town hall meeting in Berkeley Township on Tuesday was short on confrontation or verbal fireworks, but heavy on the governor's sense of frustration over the pace of the state's recovery from Superstorm Sandy – largely caused by federal government red tape, he said.

More than 80 miles away from the George Washington Bridge, the center of a lane closure scandal that continues to plague Christie's administration, the Ocean County crowd of about 500 at the Holiday City at Berkeley clubhouse largely stuck to storm recovery issues in locally devastated communities.

Those who attended asked Christie about federal recovery programs, flood insurance rates and dunes.

"The information doesn’t seem to be getting to my neighbors who are displaced," said Carol Davis of Toms River's hard-hit Silverton section, referring to newly available federal funds and how they can be used.

Christie agreed, and excoriated the number of regulations the federal government has placed on storm funding and the process by which it can be disseminated to storm victims.

"The federal government keeps the checkbook, and they put all these regulations in place," he said, calling the entire process "incredibly frustrating."

Christie spoke of a 12-step process before residents can be approved for the federally funded Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation, or RREM program, which provides grants up to $150,000 to storm victims to rebuild or repair their homes.

"All of this work is costing money, but more importantly it’s costing time," said Christie, describing a requirement that homeowners must complete environmental and historical property reports of more than 100 pages in length just to face more lengthy steps before money can be disbursed.

But the governor praised his administration's efforts to get $1 billion in the pipeline to storm victims, saying New York City has not disbursed any money to its residents yet.

After the storm, President Barack Obama signed into law an appropriation of more than $50 billion in relief.

"At the end of the day, New Jersey will probably only see $10 billion and $15 billion of that [federal] money," said Christie, compared to $37 billion worth of damage caused by Sandy. "That means some really difficult decisions have to be made. Some people who had damage will not get any aid from the federal government. We’ve said that all along, and now it’s coming home to roost."

Democrats, reacting to the town hall, blamed Christie for holdups in dispersing recovery dollars.

"I was hoping the governor would hit pause on the phony rhetoric and provide a credible explanation about why his administration botched the Superstorm Sandy recovery effort and how the Port Authority could be so badly abused for political purposes," said John Currie, state Democratic committee chair, in a statement. "When eight out of ten grant applications from Superstorm Sandy survivors are inappropriately denied, it should trigger alarm and administrative action, not one-liners and finger-pointing. The people of New Jersey have a right to be angry that the Christie administration has made their lives more difficult."

Christie: Feds should get out of the flood insurance business

The "single most frustrating part" of storm recovery has been the angst the federal government's impending flood insurance rate hikes have caused residents hoping they can remain in their communities, Christie said.

Under the Biggert-Waters flood reform act, passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama before Sandy, flood insurance rates for those who do not raise homes to meet current flood standards could face five-figure annual premiums. Some residents have said they lack the funds to raise their homes and could be driven out of them. Others fear the premiums could reduce the value of their homes.

Christie called for the federal government, which currently holds a monopoly on flood insurance policies, to allow private companies to compete.

"This is why you should all be scared of government getting bigger and bigger," he said. "It’s not like another company is going to come and start writing flood insurance policies and say, ‘look how much better we can do it.’ The government took it over."

Debate Over Dunes

Christie also addressed the ongoing process by which slivers of sand in front of oceanfront properties are being taken by municipalities so protective dunes, funded by the federal government, can line the state's entire coastline.

Most oceanfront homeowners voluntarily allowed the plots of sand, usually only a few feet wide, to be used to build the dune. But about 600 holdouts still remain.

"They’re either going to give us the easements or we’re going to take them," said Christie. "I’m not going to leave the residents exposed, again, to that kind of risk."

Dune breaches have been blamed for massive flooding along the state's barrier islands and mainland communities after water rushed into back bays during the storm. In areas where protective dunes had been built – such as Surf City, Harvey Cedars and Brant Beach – the damage was smaller in scope.

"I’m not building any hot dog stands," said Christie, referring to largely debunked fears that the state would seek to build boardwalks or tourist attractions on the oceanfront. The federal easement requires the sand to only be used for the dune.

"I’m not in the hot dog business," the governor continued. "What I’m building is a dune system that will protect the oceanfront homeowners and, just as importantly, the folks inland."

Responding to a question from a South Seaside Park, Berkeley, resident, Christie said the state is continuing to look into the issue of whether dunes at Island Beach State Park should be shored up by the federal government. A joint study on the park's dunes being conducted by Richard Stockton College and the New Jersey Institute of Technology is due to be published within weeks.

Christie said the final stage of storm recovery – rebuilding – is the most difficult of all.

"I never promised you, nor would I, that this was going to be mistake-free," he said.
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