Chaos erupts at Christie speech in Seaside - By Erik Larson, Asbury Park Press
SEASIDE HEIGHTS - Chaos erupted at an event commemorating the fourth anniversary of superstorm Sandy on Friday, forcing Gov. Chris Christie to temporarily leave his lectern where he was delivering a speech about the recovery.
Christie was at Jimbo’s Bar and Grilll on the Boardwalk in Seaside Heights when he was interrupted by protesters after he stated that of the 365,000 homes that sustained damaged in the Oct. 29, 2012 disaster there were 1,700 homes that were still uninhabitable.
"Governor, that's not true," called out Amanda Devecka-Rinear of the New Jersey Organizing Project, who was seated near the media in the back of the bar.
"I call bull----!" shouted George Kasimos, founder of Stop FEMA Now, who was standing nearby, and who continued to repeat the line again and again. "That is a "bull---- number, sir!"
At issue was whether the governor was inflating the original number of damaged homes, counting those properties with just minor damage, in an effort to give the appearance that the recovery had been far more successful than was factual.
Devecka-Rinear said later that the number of homes in New Jersey that were rendered uninhabitable four years ago was actually closer to 40,500 — data she said came from the state Department of Community Affairs in a report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The situation began to deteriorate when a Seaside Heights police officer attempted to calm Kasimos, who was the loudest of what became a chorus of several shouting protesters — some who had raised homemade signs over their heads critical of the recovery effort.
"If you want to arrest me, you can arrest me, but I'm going to talk," Kasimos said, as another man repeatedly shouted: "Finish the job!"
"This is what happens when you don't work for the people, sir!" Kasimos said. "Four years of frustration!"
"Governor, there are 7,679 families that are not back home yet!" said Jim Keady — the man who two years ago was infamously told by Christie to “sit down and shut up” — at a 2014 Sandy anniversary ceremony in Belmar, where Keady had also heckled the governor.
Christie met with Sandy protestors in Seaside Heights
NJ Governor Chris Christie was met with protestors at Jimbo's Bar & Grill on the Seaside Heights boardwalk Friday, October 28, 2016, during what was planned as a commemoration on the fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy highlighting business and infrastructure rebuilding and recovery across impacted communities. THOMAS P. COSTELLO"That's simply not true," replied Christie, who remained calm during the demonstration. Eventually, he left the lectern asking the protesters to join him at the front of the room where he invited them to write down their contact information so his staff could contact each of them on Saturday.
The gesture had the effect of pacifying the protest and Christie was eventually able to continue his remarks with few interruptions.
When Christie returned to the podium, he continued to assert that the number of homes "damaged or destroyed" was 365,000 and there were 1,700 families left that were still waiting to return to their homes.
"I'm not happy that 1,700 families have not been restored," Christie said, who outlined the bureaucratic complexities of the recovery effort, the challenges of trying to address the needs of all the victims, of opening the reconstruction process to a bigger pool of building contractors — some of whom were unscrupulous and engaged in fraud.
"So let's keep things in perspective on what's being done and what hasn't been done," Christie said, who remained poised throughout the event and quipped that he would have attempted to make changes at the federal level — specifically referencing a need to overhaul the National Flood Insurance Program — had his presidential ambitions succeeded.
"The fact that all but 1,700 of those homes are back and restored is something I'm enormously proud of no matter how many people yell and scream," Christie said. "And that doesn't mean that those who have valid complaints shouldn't be heard and shouldn't try to be helped. Our office has been trying to help everyone and has helped tens of thousands of people who have been put in that circumstance."
After the governor's speech, a relaxed and congenial Kasimos spoke to reporters and even offered some praise for Christie.
"I think the governor hit it right on the head when he said that FEMA was just screwing with (National Flood Insurance Program) policy holders, I'm glad he brought that up and I love it," Kasimos said. "But we've been waiting four years to get money to rebuild our homes and the banks are foreclosing on us. That's a big problem."
In January, Christie conditionally vetoed legislation that would have let Sandy-impacted homeowners delay foreclosures and put off mortgage payments until 2019 and that infuriated disaster victims such as Kasimos who thought the governor could have alleviated much suffering with the wave of a pen.
"We definitely need protection for our homeowners," he said.
Colleen Forest, 54, of Little Egg Harbor, said Christie's opposition to the foreclosures bill had motivated her to protest the governor on Friday. For the first time since Sandy destroyed her house four years ago, she finally returned home one month ago.
"So many of my neighbors are still out and one of the problems that we're having in Little Egg Harbor, and all over this region, are foreclosures and that's why I'm here for today," Forest said. "He needs to sign that bill."
Forest said she had a chance to speak to Christie after he left the lectern amid the heckling and the governor expressed a willingness to stop the foreclosures but that he was opposed to the specific bill the Legislature had sent him 10 months ago.
"We are so financially taxed from Sandy," Forest told Christie. "If I did not get the rental assistance, my home would be in foreclosure."
Erik Larsen: 732-682-9359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
We're South Jersey and the Shore standing together for community solutions.