WEST ORANGE, N.J. — Governor Chris Christie thanked some of the first people to deploy onto the barrier islands during and after Superstorm Sandy 5 years ago. He shook hands with National Guardsmen, State Police and Department of Transportation workers who performed rescues and cleared the roads for emergency vehicles.
Among the first responders who Christie greeted today was Army National Guard Captain Ryan Harty, a South Plainfield native who was stationed in Union Beach immediately after the storm.
"It was emotionally stressful for us,” said Capt. Hardy. “Just after days and days of helping these people out, and seeing their pain.”
Hardy did one tour in Iraq, but he said serving close to home was a much greater honor.
“You’re taking care of home and your neighbors and the residents of New Jersey, and that’s what we do at the Army National Guard.”
It’s been nearly five years since the storm hit, walloping the coastline of the state. Governor Christie recalled the most impactful encounter he had with a Sandy victim. It was a few days after the storm when he toured Sayreville with Senate President Steve Sweeney. He met a young couple in their 20’s who had no insurance and lived in a basement apartment.
"The wife grabbed me and said to me, 'help me I don’t know what to do'. I remember that woman today,” he said with tears in his eyes.
Responders recalled an eerie and surreal scene on the barrier islands.
“It was really scary. It was dark. It was silent,” said Andrew Tunnard, assistant commissioner of New Jersey DOT operations. “You could hear gas coming out of the broken homes."
Despite many first responders being victims themselves of this storm, they went into the hardest hit areas and rescued over 7,000 New Jersey residents and their pets.
"We were rescuing this one man who said, 'I can’t leave without Bananas!,” remembered New Jersey Task Force One Chief Jim Riley. "He went in the house and he came out with a 10-foot-long boa constrictor, a yellow boa constrictor.”
Gov. Christie said one lesson first responders learned from Katrina is that people will not evacuate if they cannot take their pets, so New Jersey adjusted to make room for the animals of Sandy victims.
Today, Christie estimates New Jersey is 85 percent recovered from the storm. He says the state’s efforts far outpace progress seen in New York, and that seen in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina.
The Christie administration has published a booklet that documents the damage, response and recovery from Superstorm Sandy, in the hopes that government responding to future disasters will have a playbook to learn from.
Christie ended by addressing a 5-year-old political football: his embrace of President Barack Obama when he came to tour the damage just a few days after the storm, and a few days before the his re-election. Christie took a lot of heat for accepting the President’s request to tour the devastation.
"There’s been a lot of stuff written about that time and that visit,” he said, “When something like that happens, the time for politics is over."