And on the seventh day after the storm, President Obama called Gov. Christie from Air Force One and put Bruce Springsteen on the phone.
In a compelling footnote to an extraordinary week, Obama called while en route to a campaign event with Springsteen. Although the Democratic rocker has a notoriously frosty relationship with the Republican governor, Springsteen apparently appreciated the love Christie has displayed this past week for their shared home state.
Because not only did they chat on the phone Monday, according to the governor, but Springsteen gave him a hug at the Sandy benefit telethon Friday night. He told Christie he was proud of him.
“And he told me it’s official: We’re friends,” Christie said.
Christie told us about this newfound friendship after touring two towns in Monmouth County hit by Sandy. I was the pool reporter for his visit. Here are my notes:
At 1:50 p.m. Gov. Christie left state police headquarters in Ewing via helicopter and landed 18 minutes later outside of Bayview Elementary School in Middletown, a Monmouth County town on the bay south of Staten Island that saw severe storm surge and flooding during Sandy.
Christie was accompanied by staffers and Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable III, Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez and Homeland Security Director Edward Dixon. They took SUVs from the landing zone to the front of Port Monmouth Fire Company No. 1 firehouse.
On the way, the ruined contents of people’s homes could be seen lining the streets. Many homes had severe damage to their foundations, and several residences looked beyond repair. There have been reports of looting in the area, and a hand-painted sign outside one house said: “I assure you, we’ve got guns.”
The firehouse was being used to distribute clothes, food and beverages to Sandy victims. About 150 people were gathered to greet Christie, including an assortment of volunteers, victims, officials and firefighters.
Christie first met a group of volunteers from a Southern Baptist disaster relief ministry in Oklahoma.“You’re really an inspiration – to come all the way from Oklahoma,” Christie told them.
Marie Boccasino, whose house is too unstable to be entered, told Christie that she had been denied assistance from FEMA. He had an aide take down her information in order to follow-up with FEMA to find out why.
“We’re huggers, is that okay?” Boccasino asked.
“Of course,” Christie said, leaning in for one of more than a dozen hugs he gave out Monday afternoon.
Gail Doherty introduced her daughter, Ginjer Doherty, 9, who was visibly upset. Christie put his hands on her shoulders and bent down to look in her eyes. The family’s home is destroyed.
“It’s bad stuff, but you know what? You have a bunch of adults here who are going to take care of you, so you’re going to be just fine,” Christie told her.
Christie said that what matters most is her mom, dad and dog are alive. “It’s a sad thing,” he said. “I’m sad, too. But it’s okay to be sad.”
Christie’s aide took Ginjer’s cell phone number and the governor promised to call her in a day or two to check in to see how she’s doing.
Afterwards, Gail said: “That was so nice, wow. Amazing.”
Christie was escorted through the throng by Mayor Anthony P. Fiore, who said that of the 5,000 homes in that area of the township near the bay, 85 to 90 percent saw significant damage. Twenty-two township firefighters lost their homes while working through the storm.
“I can’t say enough about these guys,” Fiore said. “They’re the real heroes.”
Christie greeted several firefighters. “Thank you for your service,” he said.
Christie himself was also repeatedly thanked. “You guys hired me to do a job,” he said.
One woman, Susan Petraglia, 53, smiled when she thanked Christie but began crying as soon as he hugged her. At one point he touched her cheek and appeared to be wiping away a tear.
“Thank you for your kind words,” he told her. “It really lifts me up.”
Speaking to another resident, Christie credited President Obama. “He called about 15 minutes ago from Air Force One to see how things are going,” Christie said. “So he’s been great.”
Later, Ken Falls, whose aunt’s house was destroyed, thanked Christie for not making the aftermath of Sandy political. “You care only about New Jersey, and we appreciate it,” he said.
At least two people asked Christie to run for president. “You would beat Obama in a landslide!” one man said.
Christie ignored the exhortation and instead made a joke about the man’s Mets shirt, saying that the team’s new slogan is “Wait til next decade.”
At times Christie told of some of the devastation he saw as if he was still shocked by it. “We’re all so lucky more people didn’t lose their lives,” he said, noting that the size of the storm was as big as Western Europe.
One woman said she evacuated because Christie told her to. When he hugged her he closed his eyes.
“Listen, I want you to know we’re thinking about you, and we’re here for you,” he said. “We’ll rebuild the rest of it, but we can’t replace you.”
When the daughter of an elderly handicapped woman told Christie that her mother lost her home and walked to the firehouse to meet Christie, he said: “You inspire me.”
“Do I?” she asked.
“You inspire me. Give me a hug.”
Christie then returned to an SUV, which took him to Bolger Middle School in nearby Keansburg. The school was blacked-out but a generator was running a light in the gym, which had been set up as a 24/7 relief center with food and clothing.
Christie went on stage and told the crowd of several hundred people, including many children: “You’ve lifted each other up, and your community has been hurt, but you’ve drawn together to each other,” he said. “And I can tell you that traveling all over the state, this is an example of what’s happening all over New Jersey…People have lost a lot of things, but you haven’t lost each other.”
“I don’t have electricity in my house, either,” he told the crowd. “I’ve been wearing the same pants for eight days.”
At which point a man in the crowd yelled (in an apparent reference to not showering): “Real guys use powder!”
Christie told the crowd that the King of Jordan had called him this week, and the Prime Minister of Britain had sent him an email. “They saw how tough New Jerseyans were on television,” he said. “You’re making people sit up and take notice of something we already knew: that the toughest, greatest people in America live right here in New Jersey.”
Someone in the crowd yelled “Jersey strong!” – and Christie repeated the phrase to applause.