Displaced by Hurricane, but Returning Home, Briefly, to Vote
Just after daybreak, under a pink-hued sky, the first voters began to pick their way through the sand and muck that had been the streets of Bay Head, N.J. Sidestepping the occasional dead fish with its one-eyed stare, they steadily found their way to the firehouse, where a huge generator powered one of the few sources of heat in the tiny seaside borough.
From dawn till past nightfall on Tuesday, displaced residents from dozens of storm-smashed communities up and down the New York and New Jersey coastlines streamed home, gathering with their neighbors for the first time since Hurricane Sandy, with one simple goal in mind.
“I wasn’t going to let no hurricane stop me from voting,” said Amos Eberhard, 61, of Queens, who journeyed 90 minutes by bus to the Rockaways from Brooklyn to cast his ballot.
For many people whose hometowns have been evacuated, whose houses were damaged by flooding or fire, or whose regular polling places were rendered unusable by a lack of electrical power, this was an Election Day unlike any in memory.
On Staten Island, voters from flooded-out neighborhoods trudged past National Guard trucks on a sports field and a line of drivers desperate to buy fuel by the local high school, where some said through tears that they had lost everything but their determination.
In Long Beach, the Long Island city that suffered some of the storm’s worst damage, Jose Barcia, a waiter who immigrated from Franco’s Spain — and withstood five feet of water on his first floor last week — said he was grateful just to be able to cast a ballot.
“I love America,” Mr. Barcia said, after voting in a darkened elementary school, where hundreds of people, some walking with canes, pushing strollers or clutching pets, clamored to vote.
And on the barrier islands of New Jersey, where emergency workers from around the nation are removing debris and downed power lines and plowing piles of sand to make the streets passable, Ocean County officials drove a bus across Barnegat Bay to deliver provisional ballots to National Guard troops, Red Cross volunteers, firefighters and law enforcement officers.
Aboard the bus, poll workers rolled into Ortley Beach to see a moonscape of vanished homes or their skeletal remains. In a supermarket parking lot, they found an Army mess tent, a Navy heater and police officers including Summer Cunliffe, 29, of Lakewood, serving up chili, soup and corn bread to relief workers.
Officer Cunliffe said she was grateful for the opportunity to vote, because her attention had been focused on other matters.
“The biggest thing was getting out here and giving the hard-working men and women the food to eat to keep them going,” she said.
Throughout New York, some displaced residents seeking to use provisional ballots to vote away from home reported problems from elections officials who declined to accept them. And in New Jersey, so many displaced residents sought to vote by e-mail or fax that the state extended by three days the deadline for returning provisional ballots, to 8 p.m. on Friday.
But in the hardest-hit locales, municipal officials and ordinary citizens insisted not just on their right to vote, but to do so as close to home as possible.
In Bay Head, where nearly all 800 voters had been evacuated for the storm, Ocean County officials did not think there were enough people currently in the borough to warrant a polling place. But Mayor William Curtis mounted a fierce resistance, and on Monday, the county relented.
“They didn’t want to deliver voting booths down here,” Mr. Curtis said. “They wanted us to go across the bridge because they didn’t think there was going to be enough people here to vote. I just said, ‘No, no, no.’ ”
He added: “This is us. This is our home.”
So Bay Head’s refugees filled the firehouse Tuesday, exchanging survival stories and recovery updates: Who has water? Hot water? Heat? Propane?
“I’m going to vote in here all day long — it’s nice and warm,” declared Brent Wentz, 72, as he arrived early Tuesday.
“It’s the little things,” added Patricia Applegate, 60, the municipal clerk. “You don’t realize these little things that you take for granted until they are gone.”
To the north, Sea Bright, N.J., in Monmouth County, was so ravaged that officials were unable to set up a single polling place there. Voters were redirected to Fair Haven, a few miles to the west, where Caitlin Dinsmore, 33, made the trip from where she has been staying even farther inland to cast her ballot.
“I couldn’t wait to get out,” said Ms. Dinsmore, still using crutches because of a sprained ankle she suffered during the storm. “I mean, life goes on, right?”
On the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, poll workers faced a different form of adversity. They arrived at Public School 180 early Tuesday to welcome displaced voters at a makeshift polling station set up in tents on the school playground. But they discovered that their portable toilets and a large generator had been stolen overnight. A small generator was left behind, but its gasoline had been siphoned off by the thieves.
The workers found fuel and opened the site. Voters flooded into the dimly lighted, low-slung tents overlooking Jamaica Bay, and brought with them surprisingly positive attitudes.
Nicole McCormick, 35, a medical administrator who rode out the storm in an upper-floor apartment, then moved in with a friend in Jamaica, Queens, stood in the inch-deep dried silt on the playground blacktop — residue from seawater that had cascaded head-high — and described her pride at voting.
Of the storm, the cleanup and the election, Ms. McCormick said: “It’s all connected. We feel like we’ve lost so much, so we’re making an effort to vote — because we don’t want to lose our voice, too.”
A few steps away, Thomas J. Hannan, a Belle Harbor resident whose house had been flooded, scoffed at complaints about Election Day logistics.
“Someone said to me that the local polling sites were poorly planned,” he said. “And I said, ‘So was this hurricane.’ ”