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President Barack Obama toured New Jersey’s hurricane damage with Governor Chris Christie by helicopter as rescuers searched for stranded residents, the death toll rose to eight and more than half of the state’s homes and businesses were without electricity.
Along the New Jersey coast today, residents and emergency workers began to clean up after the Atlantic storm Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29. They removed downed trees, pumped flooded basements and cleared sand and debris from roads. In Atlantic City, casino executives made plans to try to open on Nov. 2.
In the hardest-hit parts of the state, authorities couldn’t estimate how long it would take to rebuild. Along two barrier islands north of Atlantic City in Ocean County, where amusement piers and rides were destroyed, rescue crews checked houses to make sure everyone who wanted to evacuate had been taken away. With access to the islands blocked and homes that had been wiped off their foundations bobbing in Barnegat Bay, workers began to remove sand from roads.
“All of these shore towns have to be up and running by summer -- that’s when everyone is coming down here and it’s what they rely on,” said Frank Howe, 50, a tile setter from Long Branch, a coastal community damaged by the storm. “People will still come to the beach. But we won’t have a boardwalk for them.”
The state’s 127 miles of beaches, known as the Jersey Shore, are the backbone of a $38 billion tourism industry, New Jersey’s third largest. Last year, 67.8 million tourists visited the state, according to the state division of travel and tourism.
Casinos in Atlantic City, which claims title to America’s first oceanside boardwalk and is the second-largest U.S. gaming center, have been central to Christie’s economic revival strategy since he took office in January, 2010.
About 2.05 million residences and businesses, about half of those in the state, were without power as of 2 p.m., according to a U.S. Department of Energy report.
Eight people, including three who may have drowned, were reported dead in New Jersey as of this morning, according to Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state office of emergency management. Authorities are trying to confirm that each death was storm-related, she said.
There were 6,329 people in shelters across the state. Temporary housing in three counties -- Morris, Passaic and Union -- was at capacity.
Obama today arrived near Atlantic City and boarded a helicopter with Christie, 50, a first-term Republican governor, to tour storm damage.
“We’re going to be here for the long haul,” Obama said at the Brigantine Beach Community Center. “We’re not going to tolerate any bureaucracy.”
Christie, a surrogate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, praised Obama, a Democrat, for his administration’s response to the storm. With six days left for voters to decide whether to re-elect Obama, the storm brought the two political foes together. White House officials and campaign aides said politics played no role in the visit.
“We’re going to work together to make sure we get ourselves through this crisis and everybody back to normal,” Christie said at the community center.
On Ocean County’s northern barrier island, where episodes of the MTV show “Jersey Shore” have been filmed, a roller coaster was submerged and an amusement pier in ruins. More than a dozen small fires burned from natural-gas lines that had been attached to damaged or destroyed homes on part of the island, which includes Seaside Heights, Lavallette and Mantoloking, said Rich Peterson, a county spokesman.
Boardwalks along two islands were destroyed. Wood and other debris was tossed across the islands. The islands -- about 40 miles long -- are home to thousands of homes and businesses and officials haven’t assessed the extent of damage or how long it’ll take to complete repairs, Peterson said.
“We’ve never faced anything like this before,” he said. “The brunt of the storm hit us badly, everywhere.”
In nearby Toms River, on the mainland, residents were permitted to return to their homes a day after flooding forced them to flee. Some roads were still covered with water and fallen trees. The side of a house was sheared off, exposing a living room and kitchen with a table and chairs still in place.
Tracy Brazaitis, 53, said she reacted with “shock, just shock” after seeing her home, which had four feet of water on the first floor. Her back porch had dislodged from the house.
“Who would have ever imagined this?” she said. “You see this on the news, but you never imagine it can happen to you.”
Nearby, Nancy Beiswinger, 60, discovered that the home she rents to a tenant was in tatters. The living room, kitchen and bathroom floors were covered with several inches of wet branches and twigs. A musty smell filled the air. Her own house, across the street, suffered a cracked foundation, she said.
“It looked like a bomb went off,” said Beiswinger as she started to cry.
In Long Branch, a city of 31,000 on the northern end of New Jersey’s coast, two surfers in black wet suits braved the churning Atlantic Ocean.
Hoses directed water to the streets from flooded basements. Lawns were littered with fence panels, downed trees and trash from upended cans.
At a beach-front townhouse development, Renaissance on the Ocean, crews used front-end loaders to clear debris. Shattered glass lay on the ground and balcony railings were ruined. On Ocean Avenue, parallel to the water a block inland, roof shingles and vinyl siding pieces lined the gutters.
In Atlantic City, blinking lights from slot machines could be seen only from behind locked doors. Flood waters had receded, leaving behind sand and debris. Casino executives met yesterday with state officials to discuss re-opening on Nov. 2, according to Tom Pohlman, executive vice president and general manager for the Golden Nugget.
“We have no damage and are prepared to open as soon as the state allows,” Pohlman said in a statement.
Casinos such as Caesars, the Trump Taj Mahal and the Showboat probably were spared from significant damage because of a project earlier this year to fortify the beach and build dunes, said Frank Branagan, a superintendent with Agate Construction Co.
The boardwalk outside those casinos was intact.
“You sacrifice your dunes to save your city,” Branagan said in an interview on the dunes.
The city, with 40,000 residents, was mostly quiet today as power remained out for more than 5,000 homes and businesses, according to Atlantic City Electric.
A crew with Atlantic City Electric pumped underground water out of a manhole next to Caesars casino to assess damage to the city’s electrical grid.
The storm caused physical and economic damage at All Star Liquors at New Hampshire and Atlantic avenues in Atlantic City, one block from where the boardwalk was torn apart.
“We had almost $20,000 worth of damage,” Vishee Mandahar, 26, said from inside his family’s store as workers pumped out water and mud and picked up glass from broken liquor bottles. The store was flooded with about a foot of water, leaving mildew and mud splashes on the counter and walls.
“By not opening we’re losing money,” Mandahar said. “We’ve got bills to pay.”
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