New York, New Jersey stumble toward recovery as Obama heads to coast

President Obama joined New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for a tour of the storm-ravaged state Wednesday afternoon and pledged that the federal government is “going to be here for the long haul” in helping with recovery efforts.

“Obviously, the top priority right now is to get the power back on,” Obama told residents at a community center being used as a shelter in Brigantine, N.J., with Christie (R) at his side. “And as soon as we get power back on ... then obviously there is going to be some cleanup and there are going to be some expenses.... I just want you to know that we’re going to be here for the long haul.”

Obama offered the assurances as rays of brilliant sunshine washed over storm-ravaged New York and New Jersey on Wednesday, illuminating a coastal region cautiously stumbling back to life after the darkness and wreckage wrought by hybrid superstorm Sandy.

In the morning, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) gave an enthusiastic thumbs up as he rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange after a two-day closure, while two major airports reopened and buses and taxicabs began returning to city streets still clogged with flotsam and jetsam from the storm.

Obama later got a firsthand look at the enormous devastation that Sandy left behind on the New Jersey shore, joining Christie for an afternoon helicopter tour from Atlantic City to Point Pleasant Beach.

The wreckage in view included a demolished boardwalk, flattened houses and “a carnival and a large pier that look like the storm took giant bites out of the ends of them” in Seaside Heights, according to a pool report.

“I want to just let you know that your governor is working overtime to make sure that as soon as possible everybody can get back to normal,” Obama told Brigantine residents after the tour. “The entire country has been watching what’s been happening. Everybody knows how hard Jersey has been hit.”

“Except my boss,” a man in the audience yelled out.

“Well, except your boss,” Obama replied as the crowd laughed. “If you need me to call, you let me know.”

Obama added that he would “not tolerate any red tape” in the recovery effort. “We’re not going to tolerate any bureaucracy. We’re going to make sure that we get the help to you as quickly as we can.”

Christie, a top supporter of Republican challenger Mitt Romney who has emerged as a major booster of Obama’s handling of the storm, said “I know he means it” when Obama said he would follow through on help for the state. Christie said he has been working closely with the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It’s really important to have the president of the United States acknowledge all the suffering that’s going on here in New Jersey, and I appreciate it very much,” Christie said. “We’re going to work together to make sure we get ourselves through this crisis and get everything back to normal.”

Robin Barrella, a 51-year-old cocktail waitress who came to the shelter two nights ago, said she has not seen her house since water started coming into it as the storm struck.

“I’m almost afraid to see it,” she said.

Speaking publicly outside with scenes of destruction in the background, Christie and Obama — two longtime political adversaries tossed together as allies in the wake of the superstorm — offered more praise for each other’s efforts.

Christie said Obama had “sprung into action immediately ... while we were in the car riding together” to help meet the immediate challenges of restoring power and clean drinking water. “It’s been a great working relationship to make sure that we’re doing the jobs that people elected us to do,” Christie said.

Addressing residents of the stricken community, the governor jocularly noted that he had “met a bunch of you today in Brigantine who disregarded by admonition to get the hell out of here.”

In a similar vein, Obama thanked, among others, “the folks who were in here shuttling out people who were supposed to ‘get the hell out’ and didn’t.”

He told residents: “We are here for you, and we will not forget. We will follow up to make sure that you get all the help that you need until you’ve rebuilt.” Obama also offered advice on how to start registering for emergency assistance.

He said Christie “has put his heart and soul into making sure that the people of New Jersey bounce back even stronger than before.” Thanks to good preparations, “the loss of life was kept lower than it might have been,” Obama said. “But for those individual families, obviously their world has been torn apart.”

To the north in New York, large swaths of Lower Manhattan remained without power, and commuters struggled to get into the city despite a shuttered subway system and flooding in all 10 East River tunnels. With traffic signals dark, and hundreds of thousands of workers who normally travel by train forced to drive or search for a cab, much of downtown was gridlocked.

To alleviate the congestion, Bloomberg announced new traffic restrictions Wednesday afternoon to limit the number of private vehicles coming into Manhattan. In a news conference, he said he has ordered that inbound traffic over the four East River bridges be limited to high-occupancy vehicles — meaning at least three people per car — starting Wednesday night and continuing on Thursday and Friday from 6 a.m. to midnight. He said taxis would be exempt from 4 p.m. to midnight on both days.

“The streets just cannot handle the number of cars that have tried to come in,” Bloomberg said.

Amtrak began limited operations from New Jersey to points south but gave no timetable for resuming service to its busiest destination, New York’s Penn Station. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that some commuter rail service would resume at 2 p.m. Wednesday and said there would be limited subway service in Manhattan, north of 34th Street, starting Thursday.

After a morning visit to FEMA headquarters in Washington, Obama boarded Air Force One bound for Atlantic City, N.J. He landed there shortly after 1 p.m. to tour hard-hit areas with Christie.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that about 280 large power generators for hospitals and nursing homes have been deployed to areas affected by the storm, in addition to about 250 generators already in place. New York University’s Langone Medical Center lost backup power during the Monday night storm, forcing doctors and nurses to evacuate more than 200 patients downed darkened stairwells.

Before leaving for New Jersey, Obama talked to doctors and nurses at Langone by telephone to thank them for their heroism, according to press secretary Jay Carney.

Obama “highlighted it as an example of how, in response to disasters like this, Americans come together to help one another, neighbors help neighbors,” Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One. “And it was a heartening story about, as the president said, in the darkness of the storm, the brightness of America shown through.”

The annual Halloween parade through Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood was postponed, but Broadway theaters said their shows once again would go on and officials announced that the New York Marathon will be held on Sunday, as scheduled.

In Washington, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said it will release monthly job figures as planned on Friday, tamping down speculation that the politically important numbers might be delayed by the storm.

In Mantoloking, N.J., firefighters were unable to reach blazes rekindled by natural gas leaks earlier Wednesday in an area where more than dozen homes were destroyed during the storm. In heavily flooded Hoboken, National Guard troops worked to evacuate thousands still stuck in their homes, the Associated Press reported. The city’s mayor told the news service that live wires were dangling in floodwaters that were rapidly mixing with sewage.

Sandy was blamed for at least 59 deaths in the eastern United States, according to an AP tally, after killing 69 in a rampage across the Caribbean. The tempest played havoc with the power grid, knocking out electricity to more than 8 million people from the Carolinas to Wisconsin. More than 16,000 airline flights have been canceled so far. Eqecat, a firm that models the costs of catastrophes for insurance companies, estimated Sandy’s economic impact on the country at $10 billion to $20 billion.

The toll was not limited to the coast: Authorities in West Virginia said Wednesday that two more people had died in separate weather-related accidents, bringing to at least three the number of people in the state killed because of Sandy-related blizzard conditions.

Consolidated Edison, New York City’s power company, said it would take weeks to get all its regional customers back on the electrical grid, while transit officials warned that the city’s 108-year-old subway system could be hobbled for months and may need billions of dollars in repairs. The United Nations was closed Wednesday for the third straight day.

He will resume campaigning Thursday, the White House said, with planned stops in Colorado and Nevada.

Romney also shelved many of his campaign plans Tuesday but converted a planned political rally into a “storm relief” event near Dayton, Ohio. Aides said Wednesday that Romney made a personal donation to the American Red Cross, but declined to say how much.

Romney has ignored repeated questions from reporters on the campaign trail about whether he wished to scale back the FEMA, a position he advocated during a GOP primary debate.

Authorities said about 6.5 million households and businesses remained without power early Wednesday, including about 4 million in New York and New Jersey.

“This is the kind of thing New Jerseyans are built for — we’re plenty tough, and now we have a little more reason to be angry after this,” Christie said after taking a helicopter tour of damaged areas Tuesday. “Just what we need in New Jersey — a chance to be a little more angry.”

Bloomberg turned down the idea of a similar visit to New York City. The mayor said it was not intended as an insult to the president, who “has been very helpful to us.”

As Romney continued stumping Wednesday in a final sprint to Election Day on Nov. 6, one of his senior strategists, Russ Schriefer, was asked whether the campaign was annoyed with Christie’s effusive praise for Obama’s handling of the storm.

“Governor Christie is doing his job,” said Schriefer, who served as an adviser to Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign. “He is the governor of a state that has been hit by a very, very horrific storm, there’s tremendous damage, people have lost their lives, and he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing as the governor of New Jersey. And the president is doing what he needs to do as president, and this is a case of the governor doing his job. So I think that’s it.”

The White House has taken great pains to appear uninvolved in the presidential race during and after the storm, with Carney telling reporters Wednesday that “this is not a time for politics.”

Even so, politics has a way of intruding. A White House pool report noted that a message greeted Obama on the beach at Point Pleasant, N.J., prior to his helicopter tour of the area: “ROMNEY,” someone wrote in large letters in the sand.

Colum Lynch, Paul Schwartzman, Sally Jenkins, Anne Hull, Suzanne Sataline and Katie Van Syckle in New York; Lisa Rein in New Jersey; and Joel Achenbach and Rachel Weiner in Washington contributed to this report.

Deputy editor, National politics
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