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Sandy victims' concerns: Voting, housing, power

Last Updated 7:13 p.m. ET

NEW YORK From trying to figure out where people would live to how they would be able to vote and when all the lights will finally come on, government officials are still facing multiple fronts in the efforts to recover from Superstorm Sandy. All that, and there's another storm on the way.

Where to house potentially tens of thousands of people left homeless by the storm is the most pressing crisis, as cold weather sets in.

"It's not going to be a simple task. It's going to be one of the most complicated and long-term recovery efforts in U.S. history," said Mark Merritt, president of Witt Associates, a Washington crisis management consulting firm founded by former Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt.

Sandy killed more 100 people in 10 states but vented the worst of its fury on New Jersey and New York. A week after the storm slammed the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, more than 550,000 homes and businesses in N.J., and more than 330,000 in N.Y., are still without power.

FEMA said it has already dispensed close to $200 million in emergency housing assistance and has put 34,000 people in New York and New Jersey up in hotels and motels. But local, state and federal officials have yet to lay out a specific, comprehensive plan for finding them long-term places to live. And given the scarcity and high cost of housing there and the lack of open space, it could prove a monumental undertaking.

With the temperatures dropping into the 30s overnight, people in dark, unheated homes were urged to go to overnight shelters or daytime warming centers.

Another storm -- a nor'easter packing heavy rain and gusts of 50 to 60 mph -- was headed for the area Wednesday, threatening more flooding and power outages that could undo some of the repairs made in the past few days.

Forecasts include storm surges along the coast from two to 4.5 feet during times of high tide. New York City may also get an inch of rainfall and even snow.

As a safety precaution against more falling tree limbs, N.Y.C. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday that all city parks, playgrounds and beaches will be closed beginning noon Wednesday.

Election Day Issues

New York

Election officials in New York and New Jersey were guardedly optimistic that power would be restored and most polling places would be open in all but the worst-hit areas.

In New York and New Jersey, Election Day turnout has been heavy, with many voters in areas damaged by Sandy expressing relief and even elation at being able to vote at all.

Lines were long in Point Pleasant, N.J., where residents from the Jersey Shore communities of Point Pleasant Beach and Mantoloking had to cast their ballots due to damage in their hometowns. Many people still have no power eight days after Sandy pummeled the shore.

"Nothing is more important than voting. What is the connection between voting and this?" said Alex Shamis, a resident of hard-hit Staten Island, gesturing to his mud-filled home.

Sarah Brewster of Long Beach, N.Y., sobbed as she emerged from her polling place in a school cafeteria. She said she had been overcome when she went inside to vote and saw the clocks all stopped at 7:27 -- the time her community lost power on the evening of Oct. 29.

Voting is "part of our civic responsibility in the midst of all this crisis," said Brewster, a nonprofit worker.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Monday allowing residents to cast a provisional ballot at any polling place in the state for president and statewide office holders, an opportunity New Jersey was extending to voters as well.

"Just because you are displaced doesn't mean you are disenfranchised," Cuomo said. "Compared to what we have had to deal with in the past week, this will be a walk in the park when it comes to voting."

Provisional ballots are counted after elected officials confirm a voter's eligibility.

Temporary polling places were set up in neighborhoods where the storm had damaged regular polling places. On Tuesday morning lines could be seen of voters casting their ballots in outdoor tents as police stood guard.

CBS Station WCBS reported voting was delayed at a location at Rockaway Park in Queens because of a power outage.

On Staten Island workers scrambled at the last minute to set up a polling site Tuesday morning. An hour before the 6 a.m. poll opening, flares were set up at the entrance to Public School 52 in the Midland Beach neighborhood. There was no light at all as police helped the poll workers get gas for their generator.

The voting machines had to be retrieved from inside the school and moved into tents, and heaters were stacked on tables in the tents. The temperature was around 29 degrees as bundled-up voters began to line up in the dark.

The MTA also said it is providing free "voter shuttles" on Election Day for people in the Rockaways, Staten Island and Coney Island whose regular polling places were damaged in last week's storm.

The shuttle buses will run every 15 to 20 minutes Tuesday in addition to regular bus service and carry voters to alternate voting sites. The buses marked "MTA Voter Shuttle" will run from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Mayor Bloomberg urged city residents to check the Board of Elections website to find out about polling changes. New Yorkers seeking information about voting, poll site changes and absentee ballots can call toll-free 1-855-NYS-SANDY (1-855-697-7263).

"Vote. It is our most precious right," Bloomberg said Monday.

Staten Island resident Paul Hoppe said he probably wouldn't vote. His home, a block from the beach, was uninhabitable, his family was displaced and their possessions were ruined.

"We've got too many concerns that go beyond the national scene," Hoppe said.

New Jersey

New Jersey Division of Elections spokesman Ernie Landante said fewer than 100 polling places around the state were without power compared with 800 just days ago, and said the state has abandoned its earlier plan to use military trucks as makeshift polling places. Most voters will be able to cast ballots at their regular polling sites, he said.

Landante also said the state had taken extra steps to make sure people displaced by Sandy's destruction would be able to vote, like allowing "authorized messengers" to pick up as many mail-in ballots as they request for people in shelters or away from their homes.

"We are doing everything we can in this extraordinary situation not to disenfranchise voters displaced by Sandy. Their voices and their votes will be heard no differently than anyone else's," Landante said.

Evelyn Dennis, of Fort Lee, N.J., hangs a U.S. flag as election workers set up voting booths at Memorial Elementary School in Little Ferry, N.J., on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Most of the town is still without power. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

In Little Ferry, N.J., Agim Coma, a 25-year-old construction worker, was the first voter to arrive, 13 minutes before polls opened. The storm claimed his apartment and car.

"It's important because it's our day," he said. "No matter what happens - hurricanes, tornados - it's our day to vote."

Lines were long in Point Pleasant, N.J., where residents from the Jersey Shore communities of Point Pleasant Beach and Mantoloking had to cast their ballots due to damage in their hometowns.

Many there still have no power eight days after Sandy pummeled the shore.

"Oh my God, I have been so anxious about being able to vote," said Annette DeBona of Point Pleasant Beach. "It's such a relief to be able to do it. This is the happiest vote I ever cast in my life."

Renee Kearney of Point Pleasant Beach said she felt additional responsibility to cast a ballot this Election Day.

"It feels extra important today because you have the opportunity to influence the state of things right now, which is a disaster," the 41-year-old project manager for an information technology company said.

DeBona, a 73-year-old restaurant worker, told the Associated Press she had cast her vote for Mitt Romney whom she believed "will lift us out of our spiritual and mental depression and help us believe again."

Kearney, meanwhile, said President Obama's response to the storm has strengthened her resolve to vote for him. "For people who were not so certain about him, I think this may have sealed the deal," she said.

In Ocean County along the New Jersey coast, officials hired a converted camper to bring mail-in ballots to shelters in Toms River, Pemberton and Burlington Township. Some 75 people in Toms River alone took advantage of the service Monday, officials said. The camper will either continue to serve the shelters or be converted into an emergency voting precinct Tuesday.

"It's great. This is one less thing I have to think about," said Josephine DeFeis, who fled her home in storm-devastated Seaside Heights and cast her ballot in the camper Monday.

New Jersey also offered displaced residents the option of requesting a ballot via email and fax -- the same procedure followed by the state's overseas residents and military personnel. County election offices were quickly swamped with requests for email ballots, prompting officials to announce they would give voters until Friday to cast ballots.

"It has become apparent that the county clerks are receiving applications at a rate that outpaces their capacity to process them without an extension of the current schedule," Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is also New Jersey's secretary of state, said in a directive issued Tuesday.

Voters had to request ballots by 5 p.m. Tuesday to take advantage of the option.

In Hudson County in northern New Jersey, officials received 4,000 email ballot requests by 3 p.m.

"It's a different kind of nuts," Deputy County Clerk Janet Larwa said.

Some in New Jersey said they weren't comfortable with the email option.

Pinky Milsen, a 62-year-old retired retail worker forced from her home on Long Beach Island, drove to a polling place on the mainland to cast a ballot for President Barack Obama.

"They said you could do it on the computer, but I said no, I want to push the lever. I want to make sure Obama wins," Milsen said.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's directive that displaced New Jersey residents will be allowed to vote through email and fax was amended under pressure from voting rights advocates, in that voters would have to submit a paper ballot along with the electronic filing -- a rule the state's military personnel and residents living overseas are required to follow as well.

Larry Norden, a voting-rights advocate at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, said the email and fax option wouldn't be viable for voters still without power.

"My biggest concern about all this is confusion. These places need to take statewide action to make sure people who have been displaced know there is some way they can vote," Norden said.

New Jersey residents who need information on their polling stations can text 877877 with their home address.

Pressing Need for Housing

FEMA said it has already dispensed close to $200 million in emergency housing assistance and has put 34,000 people in New York and New Jersey up in hotels and motels. But local, state and federal officials have yet to lay out a specific, comprehensive plan for finding them long-term places to live. And given the scarcity and high cost of housing there and the lack of open space, it could prove a monumental undertaking.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg said Monday that officials are going door-to-door in hard-hit areas to assess the need for shelter. He said the worst-case estimate is 40,000 people, half of them in public housing.

But he said as many as 20,000 will probably get their heat and power back within a few days. Ultimately, the number of people who need longer-term housing could be under 10,000, he said.

In New Jersey, state officials said they are still trying to figure out how many people will need long-term housing. At least 4,000 residents were in New Jersey shelters.

As for long-term housing for the homeless, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday that the government is looking into using everything from hotels and motels to FEMA trailers and prefab homes.

"Given the extent of need, no option is off the table," she said. "All of them will have some place in this puzzle."

Residents who are in need of housing should register for assistance at a Disaster Recovery Center or by calling (800) 621-FEMA.

Officials have yet to even establish the magnitude of the problem.

The New Jersey Apartment Association, whose members operate more than 170,000 apartments, is providing a list of available apartments to the state's Disaster Housing Task Force.

On Staten Island, Danielle Valitutto can't leave her storm-ravaged home. Valitutto, who waits tables for a living, told correspondent Seth Doane her home has no heat, but she has to wait 10 days to find out if FEMA will grant her paid temporary housing.

For now, her car is the warmest place she owns.

"Everybody is complaining about electric - I wish that was the least of my worries," Valitutto said "I wish I just didn't have power. You know, you don't know what you got 'til it's gone."

In Old Lyme, Conn., building and health departments have designated about 210 houses as uninhabitable following inspections. Building Official Ron Rose said furnaces and wires were under water in some houses. Even after water recedes, he says electrical panels can remain wet.

Officials say that homeowners may not have electricity restored until their houses are inspected by an electrician.

And Another Storm Is Coming

Weather experts had good news for beleaguered northeast coastal residents Tuesday: A new storm that threatened to complicate Hurricane Sandy cleanup efforts on Wednesday now looks like it will be weaker than expected.

As the storm moves up the Atlantic coast from Florida it now is expected to veer farther offshore than earlier projections had indicated. Jeff Masters of the private weather service Weather Underground says that means less wind and rainfall on land.

Even so, he said winds could still gust to 50 mph in New York and New Jersey Wednesday afternoon and evening.

And Lauren Nash, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service, said wind gusts might blow down tree limbs weakened from Sandy and cause more power outages. On Wednesday night, gusts may occasionally reach 60 mph in coastal Connecticut and Long Island, she said.

New Jersey Gov. Christie warned Tuesday that high winds may mean some residents who regained power will lose it again, and the wind could also slow efforts to restore power. There is "nothing we can do to stop the storms," he said.

Storm surges along the coasts of New Jersey and New York are expected to reach perhaps 3 feet, only half to a third of what Hurricane Sandy caused last week, Masters said. While that should produce only minor flooding, he said it will still cause some erosion problems along the New Jersey coast and the shores of Long Island, where Sandy destroyed some protective dunes.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg said people who remained in some in extremely flood-prone areas would be asked to leave their homes voluntarily "out of precaution." As CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod reported, the mayor has issued an order closing all city parks and beaches effective noon Wednesday.

Coastal Virginia could also get a surge of 2 or 3 feet, causing minor flooding on the east side of Chesapeake Bay during high tides Wednesday morning and evening, Masters said.

However, most of the storm's rain will stay offshore, with maybe an inch or two expected in Massachusetts and less than an inch elsewhere along the coast, he said.

Up to an inch of snow may fall in northeastern New Jersey and the lower Hudson River valley, weather service meteorologist Mike Layer said. Central Massachusetts and western Connecticut also could get an inch or two of snow, according to Masters.

Along the Jersey shore, which was devastated by last week's superstorm, there was some relief that damage projections from the nor'easter have been scaled back. But there was still concern about the ocean barreling past beaches and dunes that were largely washed away.

Continued Signs of Relief and Recovery

Chris Tait is a crew worker helping haul away house debris on Staten Island - about 40 tons of junk a night.

"It's tough," Tait told WCBS. "Family members of mine have lost their houses and everything; co-workers. We're trying to help these people as much as we can. Myself and my co-workers, we're not taking lunch breaks. We're just continuing on and on to try and get these people some of their life back."

Meanwhile, volunteers were coming in to donate and help on Staten Island. The damage they saw boggled the mind and baffled their ability even to express what they saw.

"No words," said Jennifer Melitto, one of many volunteers fanning out through New Dorp Beach. "Just no words to describe what's going on."

In New York City more subway service returned in time for Tuesday's rush hour, and limited PATH train service between New Jersey and Manhattan has resumed. The signal system on the G train still needs repairs, and the L tunnel is still being pumped out.

And in Lower Manhattan the 9/11 memorial is reopening to the public a week after Superstorm Sandy flooded the World Trade Center site as it roared into New York.

Carnegie Hall will reopen Wednesday for the first time since Superstorm Sandy forced it to shutter its doors. The concert hall announced Tuesday that its planned concerts will resume Wednesday after more than a week of closure due to the storm. Carnegie Hall sits on West 57th St. where a hanging crane caused street closures in the area. After West 57th St. was reopened Sunday, Carnegie Hall still needed to restore power.

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