BELMAR, N.J. (AP) -- Gov. Chris Christie says "it weighs on me" that some people who ignored his evacuation order as Hurricane Sandy bore down on New Jersey later died because they refused to leave their low-lying homes.
"That weighs on me a bit — maybe if I was a little bit tougher they wouldn't have died," Christie said at a town hall meeting Thursday, after an elementary school girl asked what he would do differently to respond to the late October superstorm.
The Republican governor has gotten almost uniform praise for his handling of the worst storm in state history, and his job approval rating has skyrocketed in public opinion polls taken after the storm. He recently announced his re-election bid, saying he was motivated, in part, by the chance to oversee storm recovery and rebuilding.
Christie said he hadn't had much opportunity to assess his storm response, but in a rare moment of public self-reflection, he obliged.
He said he was more tentative than usual as Sandy approached because beaches were left mostly intact a year earlier when he infamously told residents to "get the hell off the beach" before Tropical Storm Irene.
"I was, candidly, a little bit nervous as to whether these guys at the weather service were right," he told the girl.
Christie attributed 40 New Jersey deaths to the superstorm.
In his first town hall since the Oct. 29 storm, he stayed in Belmar for nearly two hours as residents took turns at the microphone, applauding his recovery efforts, fretting over their ability to rebuild, complaining about responses from banks or insurance companies, or asking to shake his hand, as one man wearing a Santa costume did. A capacity crowd of 500 was on hand, and more watched the town hall from a nearby courtroom.
Before Thursday, Christie was last in Belmar seven weeks ago, walking along Ocean Avenue where the boardwalk used to be and consoling residents. It was his first stop as soon as it was safe enough to fly to the shore after the storm. The borough recently approved $17 million in borrowing to replace its 1.3 miles of boardwalk in time for next summer.
Some expressed concerns about the tourist season and the businesses that rely on summer visitors.
Christie said it's too early to say how the shore will look on Memorial Day, in part because Congress has not yet passed the $60.4 billion tri-state aid package President Barack Obama has requested.
Christie heard from one resident who is having difficulty securing financing to rebuild her vacation home in Mantoloking and from another whose only residence sustained heavy damage.
The governor told the 65-year-old whose only home was damaged that low-interest loans and grants should be available to him. But, no easy answers exist for the woman with the vacation home who didn't have flood insurance. The president made it clear federal aid money would not be available for secondary homes, Christie said.