BRICK, N.J. - The FEMA mobile disaster-recovery station was nothing more than a trailer, a couple of folding tables, some phones, and a lot of people wandering around the parking lot of the Drum Point Elementary School, where a sign that said "Respect" on fading construction paper faced out a window.
Nearby were giant Dumpsters where residents were allowed to bring the ruins of their flooded homes. Across the street was the PAL center, where hot meals were being served. Not far away was the Brick Little League field, where the ballplayers and parents have been serving hot breakfasts and lunches nearly every day.
There were mostly dazed looks on the people who showed up at one of the two FEMA mobile centers that opened Friday - the other was in Cape May Courthouse - to start recovering. The people carried waterproof folders, clutched piles of letters and deeds, and wrote in composition notebooks about damaged homes, lost goods, ruined appliances, molding homes, and uncertain futures.
Before Gov. Christie arrived with the message that he would use his "normal kind of Jersey charm" to keep pressure on electric companies and that he expected FEMA to start cutting checks practically on the spot - there was Jean Grippaldi of Brick Township, an unemployed bank manager who was now a homeless unemployed bank manager.
She arrived with her son's girlfriend for support to put in a claim at the FEMA phone bank. "I have no phones," she said. "No power. My house is destroyed. It's all flood damage. I have flood insurance but it doesn't cover the contents of the house."
There was Bill Reinhold, 71, who rebuilt an old family beach house into his retirement home in Lavallette, and who said he had not been able to even return to assess the damage.
"He doesn't know if the house is still standing," his son Rick, 42, said as his father sat at a table and filled out forms to register his claim with FEMA.
When finished, he said he was still in a holding pattern. "Once I reach the residence, I can give them a call," he said of FEMA. "They will send somebody out there to evaluate."
Later, he returned to his son's house – also without power – and built a campfire outside to keep warm.
Christie arrived as the crowd had reached about 100. He greeted first responders and victims personally, thanking them as he moved through the crowd.
After his speech, the reaction was more emotional. A half-dozen men and women – a woman with "Coach" embroidered on her jacket, a man who dissolved into tears – gave the governor extended embraces, clinging to him even as the crowd and his security team pushed them along.
During the news conference, Christie described the conditions along the northern part of the Shore, in Mantoloking, where Sandy had carved a new inlet through the island, toppled houses, and filled side streets with sand.
"It's unrecognizable," Christie said. "Homes that have completely disappeared - we don't know where they went.
"You don't want to be there yet," he said. "A good part of it looks like a bad B-movie. If you look at what happened along the beachfront, you'll know why I asked people to evacuate. Hundreds if not thousands would be dead if we had not evacuated."
The governor said there had been 13 storm-related deaths, and he attributed the survival of people who defied his evacuation order to "dumb luck." He said he would work with FEMA to set up temporary housing sites. He also said that looting was not a widespread problem post-Sandy, and that 250 state troopers were being sent to secure barrier islands.
"This is not an opportunity for them to stick it to their neighbor," he said.
Asked whether it would be prudent to rebuild along shorelines that had shown themselves to be so vulnerable, Christie said he had been consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers on what the post-Sandy Jersey Shore will look like.
That future was on the minds of Lee and Lillian Tice, both 77. They built a house on Pelican Island in Toms River and also have a rental property in Seaside Park. They haven't been able to cross the bridge to see how either fared, but they registered Friday at the mobile center.
"We have no idea if it's even there," said Lee Tice, a retired Verizon worker. FEMA workers told him "they would fix up a house to be livable, but nothing extra. They would fix the doors, fix the windows, get heat, plumbing. We have insurance. The FEMA girl said check for your insurance, but we can't get on the computer."
As for the business property, Tice said FEMA told him, "They say you get loans. Any business is also a loan."
Like nearly everyone at the site, the Tices said they felt like they had suddenly been thrust into someone else's life, waiting on line at a FEMA trailer, the home in which they'd foreseen the rest of their lives destroyed, their possessions lost, the course of their lives altered.
"We thought we were set for life," he said.
They were able to maintain their composure throughout the entire process - until Christie walked right up to Lee Tice after his speech and shook his hand. Tice dissolved into tears, with the governor of New Jersey to console him.