TOMS RIVER – Statistics and numbers on a piece of paper do little to document the epic destruction and damage Superstorm Sandy caused the state of New Jersey, said the superintendent of the State Police.
Col. Rick Fuentes was one of dozens of officials slated to testify Monday during the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee’s hearing on the state’s response to the epic storm.
He described how up to 7 feet of sand in some areas was pushed off beaches and dumped onto barrier islands’ roads. He told officials how police conducted numerous flights over “darkened and abandoned barrier islands” following the storm using night-vision goggles to look for, and guard against, looters.
“Given the magnitude of the evacuated areas, it was really quite amazing that the looting activity was kept to such a low number,” he said, crediting a beefed-up presence of state police from New Jersey and other states for the low crime activity in the wake of the storm.
The Senate panel is hosting the first of what will be a series of hearings on the storm and the state’s recovery slated to be held in various areas of New Jersey.
Prior to hearing from the head of the New Jersey State Police, Toms River Police Chief Mike Mastronardy told lawmakers that roughly 5,000 residents are still out of their homes, some of which are still residing in nearby hotels.
“This storm surge came up so quick,” he said. “It was basically a tsunami.”
The police chief described needing “a whole navy that night to rescue everybody that needed rescue,” and he explained how officials used kayaks, canoes and front-end loaders to reach people following the storm.
Mastronardy candidly told lawmakers he didn’t expect to see the kind of devastation following the storm that he ultimately witnessed.
“I didn’t think the storm was going to be as bad as it was,” he said. “I never witnessed this (in my life) … (but) we’re going to build bigger and better with your help.”
Local officials explained the largest problem facing Toms River in the immediate future is clearing debris and rebuilding the shoreline, which includes repairing and rebuilding beach dunes.
“Our beaches are no longer there anymore,” said Toms River Councilwoman Maria Maruca.
Another Toms River official estimated that recovery could take up to five years.
The hearing began with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-36), giving thanks to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for coming together in a time for need.
Sarlo, who’s been an outspoken critic of late of Gov. Chris Christie, saved some of his strongest praise for the state’s executive.
“I want to personally thank the governor, Gov. Christie, for his leadership throughout this storm,” he said. “I want to thank the governor for the support of this committee.”
Senate party leaders, Senate President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), and Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr., (R-21), were also present during the meeting.
“This is not about politics,” said committee member Sen. Kevin O’Toole, (R-40). “This is about … the rebuild.”