Gov. Chris Christie and a host of elected officials stood amid a still recovering Ocean Avenue in Belmar Wednesday to kick off the rebuilding of the borough’s boardwalk 73 days after Hurricane Sandy.
Flanked by Mayor Matthew Doherty and U.S. Reps. Chris Smith and Frank Pallone, Christie gave a decidedly upbeat speech to a crowd of more than 200 assembled in front of a massive pile driver as construction on the $6.6 million boardwalk commenced.
Calling the Jersey Shore “the heartbeat of our state,’’ Christie said that Belmar was on the vanguard of shore towns rebuilding after the devastating storm.
"Belmar is leading the way to recovery,'' Christie said. "Today is one of the great, great first moments of the rebuilding of our state, and, most importantly, the rebuilding of the Shore.''
Christie continued his push for the full Sandy-related aid package from Congress, saying that residents have already waited too long for federal money to be allocated, allowing storm-wrecked towns to begin the long process of reconstruction.
“New Jerseyans are running out of patience,’’ Christie said. “And so am I.’’
Christie said the state deserves at least as much attention as other storm-affected areas in other parts of the country, like Louisiana or Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.
“I want people in Washington to understand that we will not be short changed,’’ Christie said. “New Jersey deserves no less and we will accept no less.’’
Christie also said that he would be calling in favors for his work helping fellow Republicans in their Congressional election bids
“They’re all going to hear from me,’’ he said. “You wanted to be in Congress, now I need a little something from you.’’
Belmar was Christie’s first stop to assess damage from Hurricane Sandy, landing in a helicopter just blocks from Wednesday’s construction site. He promised to return a third time on Memorial Day, with his family.
“This is the place where we come to work and play and rest,” Christie said. “And so we’re going to work to make sure this is restored. That’s our mission for the next year.’’
Christie also had praise for Smith and Pallone, who he said had been working together to bring aid to the shore.
“We are fighting in a bipartisan way to ensure that the money is there,’’ Smth said. “Hopefully next Tuesday, January 15, will be the day when we finally get that legislation passed.’’
Smith also praised the coordination of effort across municipalities to respond to Sandy, both in preparation and cleanup.
“The response has been textbook,’’ Smith said. “Yes there have been flaws but the cooperation among local, county, state and federal officials is the best I have ever seen.’’
Smith, who touted his Belmar credentials saying his grandparents owned a summer home in the borough and that he, in 1976, proposed to his wife on one of the jetties, said that the reconstruction of the boardwalk “tells the world that Belmar’s back.’’
Pallone, who has represented Belmar for 30 years, said it was imperative to get the aid package passed as quickly as possible. Passage, he said, would ensure that towns such as Belmar could be easily reimbursed for infrastructure needs like the boardwalk.
Without it, towns are hesitant to begin rebuilding, Pallone said.
“And that makes it difficult for us to start rebuilding the shore in time to have everything open and available at Memorial Day,’’ Pallone said.
Doherty agreed that the timing is crucial, especially for shore businesses who rely on summertime visitors for their survival. More than 1 million visitors come to the boardwalk each summer, Doherty said.
Doherty said beginning to rebuild the 1.3-mile boardwalk on Wednesday would ensure that the work would be completed by Memorial Day.
“It’s vitally important for our small business owners,’’ Doherty said.
The former boardwalk, installed in the 70s, 80s and 90s, was washed away by Hurricane Sandy, partially because some of the pilings were only 6-feet deep, Doherty said. The new boardwalk’s pilings would be 20-feet deep, and each of the joints will be reinforced and up to modern construction standards.
The new boardwalk, Doherty said, will stand up to a storm surge like the one produced by Hurricane Sandy.
The borough also is looking into construction of steel-reinforced sand dunes to gird against future storms. Neighboring towns such as Bradley Beach and Spring Lake credit their dunes with protecting residents from more serious damage from the recent storm. Doherty said Belmar’s dune plans are still being worked on and need to be ok’d by FEMA, however.
Anything that keeps the ocean away from his front porch would be alright with Joe Rexrode, of Fourth Avenue.
“When the storm surge came I watched the ocean float by my house,’’ Rexrode said.
Rexrode and his wife, Diane, were among the lucky ones. Their house suffered almost no damage, a credit to their pre-storm preparations, Rexrode said.
“But I have neighbors who lost everything,’’ Rexrode said.
The driving of the first piling for a new boardwalk was without a doubt reason for Belmar to finally celebrate, Diane Rexrode said.
“This storm brought a lot of people to their knees,’’ she said. “It humbled a lot of people.”
Douglas Walsh, owner of Jersey Shore BBQ, said that the symbolism of the day was important to the people of Belmar, many of whom had lost so much.
Walsh should know. Through donations and dedication of staff and volunteers, he used his Belmar Plaza restaurant to provide free meals, every day, to anyone who walked through his doors until power was restored in town.
“It’s the first right step to rebuild what we all know and love,’’ Walsh said.