Sandy victims' concerns: Voting, housing, power

People walk through a makeshift shelter for victims of superstorm Sandy in the Toms River East High School gymnasium, as they arrive to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Toms River, N.J.
AP Photo/Mel Evans

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.