United in crisis, Obama and Christie tour a battered N.J. by copter

SEA BRIGHT, N.J. -- President Obama and Gov. Chris Christie, opponents in electoral politics but united in dealing with the devastating aftermath of super storm Sandy, toured parts of southern New Jersey on Wednesday, seeing flooded streets, flattened houses and busted piers.

Obama’s visit came as New Jersey remained in emergency mode fighting for recovery on two fronts. In the north, National Guard troops brought supplies to Hoboken where as many as 20,000 people remained stranded because of flood waters. In the south, the storm has severely damaged the beaches and barrier islands, the heart of the state’s critical tourism industry.

Christie greeted Obama when the president arrived in Atlantic City on Air Force One and the pair went off on a helicopter tour followed by a visit to the Brigantine Beach Community Center, which is serving as a shelter. For Obama, the tour offered a chance demonstrate both compassion and his role as a leader who gets things done, a stand he has taken in visits to areas hit in the past by disasters such as tornadoes.

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“The main message I wanted to send is the entire country has been watching what’s been happening. Everybody knows how hard Jersey’s been hit,” Obama said, according to pool reports of his visit.

“Hopefully if your homes aren’t too badly damaged we can get the power back on and get you back in,” Obama said at another point, adding later that federal officials were going to “make sure you guys are getting the help you need as quickly as possible.”

Even though Christie has been a surrogate for Mitt Romney, Obama’s GOP opponent in next week’s presidential vote, the New Jersey governor again praised Obama. In recent days and during numerous televised appearances, Christie, known for being pugnacious, has been unstinting in his praise for the man he has roundly attacked in campaign appearances.

“Thank you for coming, sir,” said Christie, who ruled himself out of the race for either spot on this year’s Republican national ticket.

“I know he means it,” Christie said of Obama.

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“We took a whole tour of the coast. He got a chance to see the destruction along the coast of New Jersey,” Christie said, adding later “I want to thank the president for coming here today. 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. We’re going to work together to make sure we get ourselves through this crisis and get everything back to normal.”

Nationwide, 62 people have died and billions of dollars of damage has been reported. Millions of customers around the East remain without electricity.

In New York City, officials evacuated 17 medical care facilities, some of which had been damaged, partially flooded or had lost electricity because of the storm. Bellevue Hospital, on Manhattan’s East Side, had 17 million gallons of water in the basement, officials said on Wednesday after the patients had been moved.

Some areas, including the New York transportation system, have reported the beginnings of recovery from the super storm, which included the collision of Hurricane Sandy, a Canadian cold front and a storm blowing in from the west.

But days after being struck with fierce rains and biting winds, New Jersey remained one of the hardest-hit states, damage Christie has described as “unthinkable.”

Reporters did not accompany the president or governor in their helicopter, but they flew in a second chopper along the same route. Journalists reported that they saw varying conditions from the air.

At Ship Bottom and Harvey Cedars, seawater and sand had taken a toll, but worse hit was Seaside Heights. A carnival zone and a large pier looked as if the storm took had taken giant bites out of the ends of them, reporters said. “Whole town looks like a beach with houses sprouting out from the middle of their first levels,” they said.

The damage was more daunting on the ground as reporters toured the areas. But one couple expressed a sense of optimism emerging.

In Sea Bright, Sharon Barkkume, 60, stopped to chat as she and her husband evacuated to her daughter’s house inland, which was still without power. The couple saw their condo complex turn into an island and they lost a car and a skylight, but they planned to return soon.

“We’ll be back,” said Barkkume, who owns a mortgage company. “A year from now, no one will remember this.”

Northern New Jersey also had problems, particularly in Hoboken. Officials estimated that one-quarter of the city was still under water. The National Guard was trying to relieve some of the pressure by bringing in supplies, including food and helping as many as 20,000 residents who needed assistance.

“The dimension and scope of this situation is enormous,” Public Safety Director Jon Tooke told reporters. “You have emergency operations at all levels — from local to federal — spread too thin across the city and the state, but we’re working on it.”

Molly Hennessy-Fiske and staff writer Kathleen Hennessey, who contributed to this article, reported from New Jersey; Muskal reported from Los Angeles.

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