Amid the wreckage of Superstorm Sandy, an unlikely partnership blooms between President Obama, a Democrat, and onetime archenemy — and Republican — Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
SEA BRIGHT, N.J. — The power of the image could not have been lost on a politician as savvy as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey: With days to go before a cliffhanger election, a Democratic president was giving the handshake-back pat to his Republican opponent’s most aggressive campaigner as they prepared to embark on a tour of damage from a catastrophic storm.
Before Sandy hit, Christie, a Republican, had been scheduled to campaign for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, but he embraced the moment. When President Obama praised the governor Wednesday after they finished their tour of storm-ravaged New Jersey — “I want to let you know your governor is working overtime” — the two were soon swapping compliments.
“It’s been a great working relationship,” Christie said.
“I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion for our state,” he added during a news conference.
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Only last week, Christie dismissed the president as “clutching for the light switch of leadership.”
While the political odd couple bonded, the sun came out in the region, the stock exchange reopened and the electricity crisis ebbed somewhat — but the rolls of the dead rose, and some areas were still coming to grips with Sandy’s destruction.
In pockets of New Jersey, in particular, the storm’s scope was becoming clear.
Half of Hoboken, N.J., birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra, was covered with a stew of Hudson River water, sewage and oil. Roughly 20,000 people were stranded in the flood but warned to stay put because of live wires. In Union Beach, where a flood surge pulverized some houses, the principal of the local elementary school said it couldn’t reopen for three weeks.
Some small beachfront communities instituted new evacuation orders after gas leaks erupted amid the wreckage. In Sea Bright, N.J., a barrier-beach borough of 1,800 people south of Coney Island, officials labored to shut down gas lines.
“If we had a fire now, it would just burn,” said Sea Bright’s emergency-management coordinator, Danny Drogin. “All it takes is someone lighting a cigarette.” Of Sandy, he offered this assessment: “It’s like Katrina without alligators. The damage is catastrophic.”
There were numerous signs, however, of relief and reinforcement.
The Pentagon said more than 10,000 National Guard troops in 13 states had been mobilized. The deployment included 10 Blackhawk helicopters, 100 pumps sent to New York to siphon water from tunnels, about 120 medical personnel and 573 vehicles. An additional 40 Humvees were on their way from Fort Drum, in upstate New York.
Five hundred U.S. Department of Health and Human Services workers arrived to provide emergency medical care and public-health assistance. Nearly 2,000 utility workers were on their way to Long Island from states as far-flung as California and Texas.
Military trucks lumbered into one town after another, ferrying food, water and generators, and going door to door in Hoboken to pluck out stranded residents.
“There’s been so much anxiety,” said Kim Giddens, who has lived in Hoboken, across the Hudson from Manhattan, for nine years. Portions of the city have long been flood-prone, she said, but: “This is the worst it’s ever been.”
Obama offered the assistance of additional military assets, including a Navy ship and transport planes, and said he had lain down a “15-minute rule,” meaning that every call placed to the White House by a mayor or a fire chief would be returned within 15 minutes.
“If they need something, we figure out a way to say yes,” the president said.
Obama said four states — New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and West Virginia — had shouldered the worst of the storm, and the region’s first priority was restoring power. About 5.9 million homes and businesses were without power Wednesday, down from about 8.5 million at the height of the crisis.
“We are here for you,” the president said in New Jersey, in front of three boats stacked atop one another in the middle of the street. “We will not forget.”
Obama, in hiking boots, and Christie, in white sneakers, greeted each other warmly on the tarmac in Atlantic City, a few miles north of where the 1,000-mile-wide storm landed Monday. Their aerial tour of the damages lasted for much of the day.
From Marine One, the president’s helicopter, they stared down at the ruins: floodwater churning below a gnarled roller coaster, boardwalks and piers that looked as if they’d been chewed up. Over Seaside Heights, N.J., between Atlantic City and New York City, flames burned unchecked in one abandoned neighborhood.
Obama and Christie continued their tour on the ground, including a long stop at a community center and marina in Brigantine, just north of Atlantic City. As storm victims poured out of homes and businesses, the president and governor offered hugs and reassurance.
Both men have insisted Sandy’s scope has made politics immaterial. Christie said he didn’t “give a damn about Election Day,” and had “bigger fish to fry.” But Wednesday had unmistakable political undertones.
Christie is not just any Republican; he is a top surrogate for Romney’s campaign and gave the keynote at the Republican National Convention this summer. He spent months filleting Obama’s presidency and, as of last week, when Sandy was headed across the Atlantic, was still likening Obama to a naif.
Then the storm hit, and Christie has been singing the president’s praises ever since.
“I cannot thank the president enough,” Christie said Wednesday. Of the president’s pledge to provide support until the Northeast rebuilds, Christie said: “I know he means it.”
Obama returned the love: “He has put his heart and soul into making sure that the people of New Jersey bounce back.”
As Obama stood beside Christie and gushed about “his extraordinary leadership,” Romney aides were eager to make nothing of the partnership.
“He’s a governor focused on his job,” said Kevin Madden, a Mitt Romney adviser. “He has said he’s not looking at this through the lens of politics.”
The “partnership” between Obama and Christie, as the president put it, has prompted all manner of tea-leaf-reading in the chattering classes, and no small amount of grumbling on the right. Some commentators labeled the governor “Judas Christie,” and Rush Limbaugh, a leading conservative voice, called Christie “fat and a fool.”
Also Wednesday, Sandy’s U.S. death toll rose to 72, over and above the 69 people killed by the storm in the Caribbean. The death toll seemed certain to rise as rescuers checked basements that had flooded, trapping homeowners inside.
In the United States, the new victims added to the storm’s grim tally included a state legislative candidate in West Virginia, who was killed during a blizzard, apparently by a falling tree.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said limited commuter rail service would resume, with some subway service going back on line Thursday.
Those were signs of halting progress such as the sight of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ringing the bell to reopen normal trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
But an exhausting slog lay ahead for the city that is, by far, the largest in America. Lower Manhattan, from Wall Street to 34th Street, remained without power. Dark floodwater sat stagnant in miles of century-old subway tunnels.
Bloomberg said the city’s public schools would be closed until Monday at the earliest.
Flights resumed at Kennedy and Newark airports on what authorities described as a limited schedule. Nothing was taking off or landing at LaGuardia, which suffered far worse damage. Amtrak said trains will start running in and out of New York on Friday.
Compiled from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press