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New Jerseyans Weigh In On Sandy Impact [AUDIO]

While most New Jerseyans have rebounded from the impact of Superstorm Sandy, about 1-in-4 are still picking up the pieces more than a month later, according to the latest Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll.

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Most residents are satisfied with how state agencies, private companies and their fellow citizens responded to the disaster, although there are some differences based on which utility provides their power. Garden State residents also favor taxpayer support of most rebuilding efforts, but with significant constraints on how rebuilding occurs, especially when it comes to private shore homeowners.

The Impact

Superstorm Sandy caught most New Jerseyans off guard, with 62% saying the storm was more serious than they expected. Another 27% say it was about as serious as expected and just 10% said it was less serious. Residents of the southwestern Philadelphia suburbs (25%) were the most likely to say the storm’s impact was less serious than anticipated. Overall, 30% of New Jerseyans feel the state was very prepared to handle this kind of storm and 44% say the state was somewhat prepared.

Just under 1-in-4 say the state was only a little (15%) or not at all prepared (8%). Residents of the four Jersey Shore counties (46%) are the most likely to say the state was very prepared to deal with the storm.

More than 4-in-10 Garden State residents (42%) expect that a storm of this magnitude will happen again in the next five years. Another 22% expect a recurrence within the next 25 years. Just 18% feel Sandy was a “once in a lifetime” event. When thinking about their own preparations, nearly 4-in-10 residents (38%) say they will personally do more to prepare the next time a big storm is predicted to hit New Jersey, 59% will do about the same, and just 1% will make fewer preparations than they did for Sandy.

Just under 1-in-10 New Jerseyans (8%) say they suffered significant financial hardship because of the storm and 21% experienced some financial hardship. Another 21% say they experienced minor hardship and half (49%) say they felt no financial impact at all. Nearly 6-in-10 residents (58%) report that a wage earner in their household was kept away from their job because of the storm emergency.

About 3-in-10 Garden State residents (29%) say they suffered property damage to a home or business because of the storm and 6% report damage to a vehicle. Nearly 1-in-4 residents (23%) estimate that their storm-related damage and losses total more than $1,000. Among those with financial losses over $1,000, 21% say this has caused them significant hardship and 38% say it has caused them some hardship.

Fully 3-in-4 New Jerseyans (74%) say that they have fully recovered from the storm or report that the storm had no impact on them. Another 18% have partially recovered and the remainder have only barely recovered (4%) or not recovered at all (3%). In the hardest hit areas of the state – which include all Jersey Shore beach communities as well as flooded urban towns in North Jersey – a bare majority (53%) say they have fully recovered. Among residents who personally experienced more than $1,000 in losses, just 44% say they have fully recovered.

Nearly two-thirds of state residents lost power at some point during or after the storm. This includes 49% who lost power due to Sandy and 12% who suffered the misfortune of losing their power because of Sandy, getting it back, and then losing it again when Winter Storm Athena blew in a week later. Another 3% lost power only after the winter storm hit. Overall, 17% of residents report being without power for more than a week, 25% had the lights out from 4 to 7 days, and 21% were without electricity for no more than 3 days. About 1-in-4 residents (24%) say they spent at least one night away from their home because of the storm, with 5% leaving before the storm arrived, 3% leaving during the storm, and 15% leaving after the storm had passed. In the hardest hit areas, 4-in-10 residents (41%) were forced to leave their home at some point.

A major issue immediately following the storm was the availability of gasoline. Just over 1-in-5 New Jerseyans (22%) report that they went to fill up their cars a day or two after Sandy hit, 20% waited 3 or 4 days, 14% waited 5 or 6 days, 19% waited 7 days, and 13% waited a week or more.

Among those who went to a gas station within 48 hours of the storm, 41% say their car’s tank was close to empty, while 56% say they wanted to fill up as soon as possible as a precaution. Those who waited 3 or 4 days (51%) are more likely to report their fuel gauge was approaching “E.” Among those who waited between 5 and 7 days after the storm to get gas for their vehicles, 59% had a near empty tank.

Long waits for gas were a particular problem in northern New Jersey. In the 12 county area where a rationing plan was eventually implemented, 42% of those who went to a gas station within 2 days of the storm say they waited in line for an hour or more. This decreased to 33% among those who filled up their cars 3 or 4 days after the storm. Reports of hour-long waits dropped significantly to 11% among those who waited 5 or 6 days, which coincided with the day that odd-even gas rationing went into effect.

Reports of hour or more waits increased to 25% among those who filled up their cars 7 days after the storm – which was also the first workday after rationing was imposed – but immediately dropped to 8% among those who waited more than a week to fill up their cars. [In the southern part of the state, just 7% experienced an hour or more wait in the 4 days after the storm and no one in South Jersey reported that length of wait after the first few days following the storm.]

Communications was also a key issue during the storm, with many residents relying on their cell phones as a primary means of staying informed. The problem was that nearly half of the Garden State’s cell phone users (47%) reported having signal reception problems following the storm, including 34% who say these problems lasted for two days or more. A majority of Sprint (71%), T-Mobile (59%) and AT&T (58%) customers report experiencing reception problems after the storm. This compares to just 34% of Verizon customers who say the same.

How did the state perform?

The storm left residents with largely positive feelings about their fellow New Jerseyans. Three-in-four (75%) say Sandy brought out the best in people compared to just 12% who say the storm brought out the worst in people. Nearly 6-in-10 residents (57%) report that they personally donated food, clothing, or supplies; 43% donated money to a Sandy relief fund; 29% hosted displaced friends or family members in their home; and 25% volunteered their time to help with recovery or cleanup efforts.

The poll asked state residents to rate how well nine different groups responded to the storm and its aftermath – and all came out with more positive than negative evaluations. Police and first responders are the recognized heroes – 79% of residents give them a positive rating, including 47% who rate them as excellent and 32% as good. Just 10% say they did an only fair or poor job. The utility crews who hit the streets also receive widespread praise from 71% of New Jerseyans, while just 21% give the crews a negative rating.

“There appears to be a strong consensus that New Jerseyans really pulled together to handle this unprecedented situation,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Interestingly, even the utility companies receive more positive (61%) than negative (33%) marks from the general public. This is true even in the hardest hit areas of the state – 58% positive to 37% negative. However, there are some differences of opinion depending on which utility company is being rated. Fully 6-in-10 PSE&G customers (61%) give the state’s largest utility company positive reviews for storm response compared to 35% who give a negative review. Two-in-three (65%) PSE&G customers report losing power. Three quarters of those who were without electricity for 3 days or less (75%) gave their utility largely positive reviews. This declined somewhat to 61% among those who were in the dark for 4 or 5 days, just under half (47%) who lost power for 6 or 7 days, and just one-third (34%) who went without electricity for more than a week. Overall, half of PSE&G customers report that the state’s utility companies did an excellent (14%) or good (36%) job providing information about the storm response, while 3-in-10 say the information flow was only fair (15%) or poor (15%) and 19% offer no opinion on this.

Among JCP&L customers – 79% of whom report losing power at some point during or after Sandy – 53% give their utility provider a positive rating for storm response and 43% give a negative rating. This split between positive and negative ratings is fairly consistent regardless of how long the individual customers were without power. Only 1-in-4 JCP&L customers report that the state’s utility companies did an excellent (7%) or good (19%) job providing information about the storm response, while nearly half say the information flow was only fair (13%) or poor (31%) and 30% offer no opinion on this.

Atlantic City Electric receives the most favorable reviews from its customers – 80% positive to 8% negative. It should be noted, though, that only one-third of this utility’s customers (34%) actually lost power. Seven-in-ten AC Electric customers say the information from state utility companies was excellent (32%) or good (38%).

According to the New Jersey public, all levels of government responded well to the storm. This includes municipal governments (69% positive to 20% negative), the state government (66% to 21%), county governments (55% to 20%), and the federal government (51% to 27%).

The storm response of cable TV and internet providers is also well-regarded – 62% positive versus 26% negative. Opinion on how New Jersey Transit handled the storm is divided but still more positive (34%) than negative (25%), although 41% of residents have no opinion on how the state’s public transit operator performed.

Rebuilding Plans

Nearly half of New Jerseyans (47%) say it is very important to repair damaged areas of the Jersey Shore in time for this summer’s tourist season. Another 34% say it is somewhat important and 18% say it is not important. Among shore county residents, more than 6-in-10 (62%) say this is very important.

However, Garden State residents do not feel that the job should be rushed if it would drive up the costs. Only 25% support having shore towns do all they can to rebuild by this summer if doing so would increase the price tag. Two-thirds of New Jerseyans (67%) feel that the shore should rebuild gradually if the cost of expediting the process is a factor. Among residents of the four shore counties, 31% support rebuilding by the summer of 2013 regardless of cost, while 60% support a more gradual rebuilding strategy to keep costs down.

The vast majority of New Jerseyans support using state tax dollars to assist with storm recovery, except when it comes to subsidizing private homeowners down the shore. More than two-thirds of state residents support state expenditures to: restore existing wetlands and bays to serve as storm buffers (80%), upgrade and stormproof power utility substations and lines (79%), assist North Jersey urban residents who were flooded (78%), upgrade and stormproof rail systems (77%), rebuild boardwalks and beach amenities (76%), replenish beach sand (72%), assist North Jersey urban businesses that were flooded (71%), and rebuild shore businesses (68%).

“The Jersey Shore is considered to be one of the state’s primary assets, so it is no surprise that we find a general public willingness to support rebuilding efforts. The question is whether support will shift once the costs become more apparent,” said Murray. He added, “It is interesting that there is less public support for subsidizing the rebuilding of private shore homes than there is for businesses and other beach amenities. Perhaps most New Jerseyans feel that shore homeowners accepted the risks or that these are mainly vacation properties rather than primary dwellings. We will definitely be exploring this in future polling.”

There is less support for using state tax dollars to rebuild private shore homes (40% support to 51% oppose) or to help high-risk area homeowners with little damage upgrade their properties (39% support to 56% oppose). Residents are also less supportive of using the state government’s “Blue Acres” funds to buy private property in high risk shore areas. Just 43% of Garden State residents support this proposal, while 37% who oppose it, with 20% saying it depends or having no opinion.

[Note: the actual or potential costs of any of these actions were not part of the poll questions. As such, these results only indicate the public's general inclination to provide state support for different aspects of the recovery effort.]

While New Jerseyans support state assistance for the recovery effort, it should not come without constraints, according to poll findings. Nearly 9-in-10 residents support imposing stricter storm-resistant building codes in affected areas (87%). More than 7-in-10 support the creation of a coastal commission to coordinate shore planning and rebuilding (72%). Two-in-three also support giving towns the right to impose a short-term building moratorium in high risk areas (69%), permitting beachfront homeowners to rebuild only if they allow dunes or sea walls in front of their properties (68%), and allowing state regulators to decide which coastal areas can or cannot be rebuilt according to storm risk assessments (66%).

In assessing the poll, Murray stated, “Polling on elections and tracking the governor’s job performance are important parts of what we do as a public interest polling operation. But the type of research in this survey is where we can provide a significant service to New Jersey residents and policymakers. The results in this release represent only part of a larger set of questions we asked about how Sandy has affected the state. We will be releasing the full set of results in the coming weeks, and will be tracking public support of ongoing policy developments and the long term impact of Sandy on those who were hit the hardest.”

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