Environmentalists Flunk Christie, Administration on Sandy Recovery Report Card

'Rebuilding without rethinking' earns Legislature 'Cs' and Incompletes

John Weber, Mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation.
The late New York Mayor Ed Koch had a trademark slogan he’d ask voters as they emerged from subway stations: “How’m I doing?”

If some of New Jersey’s environmental groups were asked that by Gov. Chris Christie, they would probably respond, “Pretty poorly. You need to do a lot better and be a lot smarter in helping the state recover from Hurricane Sandy.”

In a press conference in the Statehouse yesterday, a coalition of environmental organizations issued a report card you wouldn’t want your parents to see, giving Christie and his administration near-failing or failing grades in how well New Jersey is doing in rebuilding from the devastating superstorm.

Instead of rebuilding smarter, the groups argued that the state is repeating the mistakes of the past, which left much of the Jersey coast vulnerable to damage from extreme storms like Sandy. Homes and buildings are going up in precisely the same places destroyed by the hurricane. The state’s response to the storm also ignores the impact of rising sea levels and climate change, they said.

“There is a lot of anger and frustration,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, one of the groups participating in the event. “While boardwalks have been rebuilt, thousands of people are still out of their homes.’’

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the Christie for Governor campaign, dismissed the coalition’s scorecard and arguments.

“This is nothing more than a thinly veiled political attack and agenda pushing 12 days out from an election — an election in which prominent members of this coalition have endorsed the governor’s opponent,’’ he said.

Both the Sierra Club, one of Christie’s harshest critics, and the New Jersey Environmental Federation participated in the press event, and endorsed Democrat Barbara Buono this fall. The federation, however, backed Christie in his initial run for office. It eventually soured on the Republican governor over many of his policy initiatives in his first term.

Yet some of the criticisms leveled at the administration by the environmentalists have been often expressed at a series of legislative hearings on the state’s efforts to recover from the storm, as well as in a front page article yesterday in The New York Times.

Money to rebuild homes has not been allocated despite promises to do so; insurers and banks refuse to settle claims with homeowners, or even answer questions on how to sift through the process. The groups claimed that there have been numerous delays with the state Department of Community Affairs with getting money to people and handling applications. The same agency has yet to update its building codes to include new structures being built after Sandy, a failure Tittel said could jeopardize future federal funding of the state’s recovery effort.

In recent days, the Christie administration has put out a bevy of press releases detailing how it is helping New Jersey recover from the storm. For example, yesterday, the governor’s office issued a press release announcing the allocation of $13.6 million in zero-interest loans to help finance the building of 84 units of affordable housing in Sandy-impacted communities.

To the environmental groups, however, too much of the administration’s efforts to recover from Sandy are being done without proper planning and without recognition of how climate change and rising sea levels need to be reflected in policymakers’ decision-making.

For instance, John Weber, Mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, cited a number of examples how rebuilding is occurring without rethinking by elected officials and government agencies.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $195 million replenishing beaches in hard-hit Monmouth County in the 1990s with no dunes, Weber said. It is now planning to replenish those same beaches with the same designs used back then, he said.

“So in Monmouth County, that means big, wide, flat beaches again with no dunes,’’ Weber said. “We need to rethink the Jersey Shore.’’

The irony is that the Christie administration has championed the creation of dunes as a way to protect homeowners and businesses from extreme storms like Sandy, advocates said.

Other federal agencies and the New Jersey Legislature fared a bit better when it came to grades, earning Cs, with the coalition saying their record in helping New Jersey recover from the storm is incomplete.