After taking a nearly hourlong helicopter tour of the areas that were the hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy, President Barack Obama and Gov. Chris Christie traveled in a motorcade to visit the Brigantine Beach Community Center that is serving as a shelter

At the height of the storm, some 200 people were sleeping in the center’s local gym. About 50 stranded residents continue to stay there overnight while many floated in and out to eat and power up electronics and take showers.

Obama entered the cafeteria of the center with Christie at about 3 p.m. and circulated from table to table greeting, hugging and posing for pictures with residents who had been forced out of their homes.

At one point, he told the group, “These folks have been cooking for everyone for 18 hours straight” while posing for a picture with several people standing by the kitchen. Everyone in the room then applauded.

Obama, who wore a navy windbreaker, khakis and outdoor shoes, said the top priority was to get power restored, then perform a clean-up. He told the group the federal government was there to help and would get them help as quickly as they could.

“The main message I just want to send is that the entire country has been watching what’s been happening and everybody knows how hard (New) Jersey’s been hit,” he said. “You guys are in our thoughts and prayers.”

Sandrine Burel, who had to be evacuated by boat from her Lafayette Boulevard home and stay at the shelter, said it was an honor to see the president in the same room.

“It’s nice to know that he thinks of the little people too,” she said.

Obama arrived earlier this afternoon at Atlantic City International Airport and joined Christie to survey the damage in the Atlantic City area from Hurricane Sandy.

Obama re-landed at Atlantic City International Airport following a nearly hourlong helicopter tour of the areas hardest hit by Sandy. He stepped out of the helicopter at 2:32 p.m. and entered an awaiting car. They were headed for Brigantine.

The motorcade arrived at the Brigantine Beach Community Center in at 2:56 p.m.

Upon his initial arrival, Marines saluted the helicopter as the stairs were pulled up and the engines are started. The helicopter, as well as a second one carrying staff and others, took off headed to the nearby barrier islands at 1:16 p.m.

Statewide devastation from the storm, which actually hit the New Jersey coast as a northeaster, has had the president already declare a major disaster in eight counties: Atlantic, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union.

That means municipalities, businesses and individuals will be able to receive federal aid, including grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to recover from the effects of the disaster.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration has been working with other agencies to help bring supplies to affected communities as well as assessing damage in other counties, such as Cumberland, to determine whether they qualify for disaster aid, spokeswoman Phyllis Deroian said.

Officials late Tuesday were still making plans on how people would be able to apply for the aid.

“We’re working here and on the ground,” she said of FEMA crews. “It’s going to be a significant number of people.”

The New Jersey National Guard also mobilized 4,000 troops and a Blackhawk helicopter ready to assist in post-storm damage assessment, Brig. Gen. Michael Cunniff said.

Access to barrier islands remains blocked Wednesday morning. Some of the state’s most treasured resorts, including Atlantic City and Ocean City, remain closed.

Ocean County was among the hardest hit with the ocean meeting the bay on Long Beach Island.

Emergency responders were performing search-and-rescue in several communities, including Stafford Township.

The governor met with Cape May County mayors and Avalon emergency management officials after touring Belmar in Monmouth County. After surveying the region by helicopter, Christie said Ocean City suffered some of the most significant damage. The governor also said Long Beach Island and Seaside Heights had more devastation than he had ever seen before.

"The entire Seaside Heights boardwalk is gone," he said.

Returning residents to the barrier islands would require a coordinated effort, the governor said.

"I'm not going to authorize any re-entry into the barrier islands until further notice," Christie said.

In Atlantic County, the West Atlantic City section of Egg Harbor Township was among the hardest hit areas, according to township Mayor Sonny McCullough, who said there didn't appear to be casualties.

"There are houses that are lifted off the foundation, roofs are down, cars are under water," he said.

Officials said they would wait until the water receded before helping to clear the debris.

"The financial damage is overwhelming for people," McCullough said.

On Black Horse Pike, a house boat floated inland and sat stranded in the middle of the road.

"That was the boat that took out my porch," George Broomsmith, 61, of Egg Harbor Township, said.

Broomsmith and his neighbor Bill Warren, 46, took shelter in their home during the storm Monday night, marveling as floodwaters lapped the porch of his home, rising high enough for him to use his kayak to navigate around the roads of his neighborhood.

"I saw four floating docks, 4 feet of water in the street," he said. "The wind was howling and pushing everything to my house."

Other residents who lived near the water took shelter in higher ground, but when they returned, found extensive water damage to their homes.

"Unreal," Tom Rehr, 63, of Absecon, said of the mess he found in his garage. "It all floated around."

Rehr and his wife found all of their belongings on the first floor of their home soaked.

"It has never come up this high," Mary Rehr said. "It's terrible."

The couple tried to ride out the storm but left as the tide reached their doorway.

"When you live by the water, you take your chances," she said.

In Somers Point, Annette and Glenn Todd left their home due to the rising tide but left a sump pump running, which helped to keep their home dry, unlike their neighbors who experienced extensive damage.

"If the electricity didn't stay on, we would have been done in," Annette Todd, 52, said.

Staff Writers Donna Weaver and Trudi Gilfillian contributed to this report

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