As Election Day looms, it’s survival vs. citizenship for storm-hit communities

November 4, 2012

As the rest of the nation frets about a nail-biter of a presidential race, this city and its surroundings are still wracked by the effects of Hurricane Sandy nearly a week after its landfall. On Sunday, many New Yorkers and New Jerseyans were occupied by tasks more elemental than preparing to vote: namely, staying warm, seeking gas and helping their storm-swept neighbors get through another cold day.

“I’m not even thinking about the election,” said Bob Quigley, 42, a police officer who was helping clear storm debris from his father’s home in Belle Harbor, a quaint island community on the Rockaways in Queens where floodwater reached the second floors of some homes. “It’s kind of like the Third World” here, he added.

The hurricane’s direct hit on the infrastructure and psyche of New York and New Jersey has positioned Election Day as a test of collaboration amid crisis, an exercise of mind over matter, a balance between survival and citizenship.

Forty-eight hours before polls opened, near the West 80s in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, some volunteers sawing through downed tree branches were anxious about how curbed turnout would nudge the popular vote. Downtown, at Hamilton Fish Park at Pitt and E. Houston streets, hundreds of people in line were focused solely on picking up boxes of emergency rations and warm clothing as FEMA, the National Guard and the New York Police Department managed the distribution.

The election “is on nobody’s mind,” said Madge Jones, a school lunch helper who lives in a Lower East Side public housing complex that she says regained electricity Friday but still doesn’t have heat. “Everyone’s trying to live. They got kids. How’s anybody gonna go out and vote?”

Yet every one of a dozen motorists interviewed while they were waiting in a long line for gas Sunday in downtown Newark said they intend to vote. Nelson Viera, 47, said that power has finally been restored to his home and that he intends to be at the polls Tuesday.

“It’s one of our rights,” said Viera, who works for a mapmaker. “It deserves to be protected.”

Logistical difficulties

The New York region continued to stagger to its feet Sunday, a bright and cloudless day with a chilling breeze. Con Edison has restored power to about 70 percent of the nearly 1 million customers who lost it, and the subway and school systems were expected to be 90 percent operational Monday, according to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I). But some residents were entering their second week without electricity or heat.

The election seemed trivial in the tattered landscape, especially in coastal towns of southern Brooklyn and Queens, where Sandy’s surge ruined homes. The polling station at Bay Academy, the local high school in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, had been submerged. There were rumors of contingency plans, but nobody knew for sure.

“I heard on the radio that some kind of National Guard trucks are coming and they are going to set up some polling booths in front of the school,” said Barry Weinstein, 60, a credit manager at a Long Island City limousine company. “But why would we want to vote for anybody? No one has been here. Where’s the governor? Where’s the mayor?”

They were on Twitter, at least.

“I still don’t have power in my house,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) tweeted at 3:52 p.m. Sunday. “I’m not happy about it either but that’s the way it goes. It was a major storm. We have to be patient.”

Bloomberg, who visited the devastated Staten Island, tweeted at 10:42 a.m. that “our focus today is checking in on people and seeing who else needs a warm place to sleep tonight. Shelters are open.”

New Jersey’s Department of State announced Saturday that displaced residents can vote by e-mail or fax, though more than half the town of Long Branch was without power Sunday, Mayor Adam Schneider said on 101.5 FM.

Sixty of New York City’s about 1,300 polling sites have been relocated or combined ahead of Tuesday, an adjustment that affects about 143,000 voters. Affected polling sites can operate without power because the paper ballots can be optically scanned elsewhere, but election officials were ensuring that such sites at least have light so voters can see. Generators were being trucked in from other states, and the National Guard may provide glow sticks to voters if necessary, said John Conklin, director of public information for the New York State Board of Elections.

Relocating polling sites off the hard-hit Rockaway Peninsula in Queens would essentially disenfranchise voters, Conklin said. Places such as Long Beach, a barrier island of 35,000 residents in the Nassau County constituency of Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), are “basically locked down,” the lawmaker said. “It seems almost every home is without power, people have left, polling locations may be in other communities, and people may have to get off the island to vote.”

Down-ballot consequences

A reduced turnout in New York and New Jersey matters little to the presidential candidates vying for the states’ combined 43 electoral votes, which are solidly in President Obama’s column, but local races could be affected. The contest between Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D) and repeat challenger Randy Altschuler in New York’s 1st Congressional District — the eastern end of Long Island, with 300 miles of affected coastline — was decided by several hundred votes in 2010, and both men found themselves manning a hybrid operation in the closing days of this campaign.

“The first question we’re asking when we talk to a voter is, ‘How are you doing and what do you need?’ and the second is to make sure they’re in a position that they can get out to vote,” says Bishop, who thinks his race will hinge on turnout and estimated that half of Long Island was still without power Sunday morning. “But people without power are worrying about power; people without gas in the tank are worried about how they’re getting to work on Monday. . . . The variety of really, really serious needs that people have” trump voting.

Altschuler, a Republican businessman whose home near Smithtown is still without power, has toured damaged areas in the event that he is elected and recovery becomes his mandate in January. His campaign manager, Diana Weir, said their headquarters in Brookhaven is accepting food and water donations and is coordinating with the town’s Republican committee, which has chartered six buses to take voters to the polls Tuesday.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is “extremely concerned” about Election Day — and considers New York City’s Board of Elections “troubled even under the best circumstances” — but was otherwise heartened by his interactions with residents.

“When I was out on the Lower East Side talking to tenants in public housing a couple days ago, people were waiting hours for food and water,” Stringer said. “It looked like soup lines in the Depression. But I cannot tell you how many people came up to me and asked, ‘Are we going to be able to vote?’ It’s heartwarming to look at our democracy through the eyes of people who are truly suffering and still concerned about voting.”

But Jones, the school lunch helper and public housing resident waiting in one of those lines Sunday, was more concerned about the nor’easter predicted to whip up high seas and gusty winds in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast the day after the election.

“We’re in a home with no heat, and we’re coming to another storm,” she said. “That’s crazy.”

Carol Morello in Newark contributed to this report.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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