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John Minchillo, Associated Press
This combination of Oct. 29, 2012 and Oct. 20, 2013 photos shows sea water flooding the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in New York as Superstorm Sandy struck the city, and traffic entering nearly a year later.

SEASIDE PARK, N.J. — A year after Superstorm Sandy pummeled his state, Gov. Chris Christie said he is celebrating how far New Jersey has come since the storm and pledged not to forget the thousands who still cannot go back home yet.

Visiting a flood-damaged firehouse in Seaside Park, with bare sheet rock and dangling wires, the governor said Tuesday is a day to remember volunteers and first responders who risked their lives to save others. Christie, who stayed overnight at the governor's beach house in neighboring Island Beach State Park, said he woke up Tuesday morning and was struck by "just how much different we all feel a year later."

"I want us to think of how much better things look today than they did a year ago, and celebrate that," Christie said. "We also have to acknowledge that there's still thousands of people out of their homes. For them, it doesn't matter that there are tens of thousands of people back in their homes. I can't break faith with these people. Until they're back home, we can't forget them. We are all not whole until everybody individually is whole."

Christie is expected to be easily re-elected next week after a campaign in which he touted his handling of the storm aftermath as one of his main accomplishments. But he also has come under fire from Sandy victims who complain that a year later, they have gotten little or no money from a multitude of federal and state aid programs.

One of them is Debbie Fortier of Brick, who came to Seaside Park to meet the governor. Walking out arm-in-arm with him after he had finished speaking at the firehouse, she told Christie how her family's house had to be torn down and how her family has yet to receive any aid.

"We're physically, emotionally and spiritually just drained," she said after Christie left. "Does anybody hear us?"

She said she is on a waiting list "for everything," and is particularly bitter that her family started to repair their storm-damaged house, only to have inspectors later tell them it was too badly damaged to fix. They then had to knock it down and move into a friend's basement.

"How long am I supposed to wait?" she asked. "It's been a year. You can't just not move forward."

Yet Fortier said she takes Christie at his word that help is on the way — whenever that might be.

Also on Tuesday, the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund, chaired by the governor's wife, Mary Pat Christie, announced eight new grants to nonprofit organizations to be used for housing assistance, mental health programs and social services. So far the fund has handed out $19.2 million to 80 organizations involved in storm recovery.

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The firehouse visit was the first of a full day of Sandy anniversary visits Christie planned to make Tuesday. Later in the day he was to attend a memorial service for the 71 New jersey victims who died in the storm, to help with light repair work at a flood-damaged home in Union Beach, to attend a ceremony in Belmar, which was the first shore town to rebuild its boardwalk after the storm, and greet firefighters in Sayreville, the Raritan Bay community where his administration just completed the purchase of two homes under a state buyout program for flood-prone areas.

Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC