Skip to main content

Residents of New York’s blacked-out Rockway Beach neighbourhood listen for election results on the radio.LUCAS JACKSON/Reuters

For John Luisi, voting day began at 4 a.m. From his Staten Island home, his first stop was the far reaches of Queens, followed by a trip to a shore-front neighbourhood in Brooklyn.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, that itinerary meant one thing. "I'm doing devastation central," said Mr. Luisi, a New York city election official.

He wasn't exaggerating. In Queens, his polling station consisted of a large tent, hastily rigged in a dusty school yard, where the drone of portable generators filled the wintry air.

Never in his career, he said, had an election in New York depended on a helping hand from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In areas of the United States that escaped the storm's fury, the polling problems were less unusual. They included reports of malfunctioning voting machines, long lines and complaints about access.

Mr. Luisi, by contrast, was surrounded by streets upon streets of quiet desolation. No power, no heat, no stores, no gas stations – just the grinding challenge of staying warm and emptying flooded homes.

More than a week after a brutal storm struck New York, the Rockaways – an ocean-facing peninsula in Queens that is home to more than 100,000 people – remained a world apart.

Without electricity, some voters planned to learn who would become their next president through battery-powered radios – that is, if they planned to listen at all.

For some Rockaway residents, the election was the furthest thing from their minds. Sitting on the front steps of her daughter's home, Margaret Lewis, 56, shivered in the chilly morning air. "I could care less," she said. "I really feel like a zombie."

Her home was flooded in the storm, suffering so much damage that she believes it will be condemned. She dreams of a functioning car, with gas, and a warm room. On the previous night, she said, she could see her own breath inside the house.

The election "doesn't matter," she said. "Do people on the outside know what is happening here?"

All along the block, there were piles of debris from ruined basements and ground floors, some of it still dripping. The nearby school that normally serves as the local polling station was closed and quiet.

At one house, the mark left by the flood was more than two metres high. The owner described how he had sheltered 29 people the night of the storm after a fire swept through their homes. He was spending nights with relatives off the Rockaway peninsula. "We're still in shock, for crying out loud," he said.

Kara Bobby, 24, was undecided whether she would vote on Tuesday. Her thoughts were elsewhere. "Literally, Rockaway people are refugees right now," she said. "People you would never see needing stuff – they need stuff," she said. "It's bad."

Even in a difficult time, the residents were unstintingly generous, offering water, granola bars, peanuts – and lifts, where possible, to a visiting reporter.

Nearly everyone had a tale of some unexpected kindness. Elliot Harris, a guidance counsellor, said that a family from Atlanta showed up at his building with much-needed baby supplies; on Sunday, tuna sandwiches appeared courtesy of a group of young volunteers.

At the polling station, the mood was lighter and slightly chaotic. Even in the confusion, there appeared to be something satisfying about this brief coming together, a small reminder of what regular life was like.

Jack and Sandra Brown had brought their five-year-old grandson with them. For eight days, they have been climbing up and down 1from their unheated seventh-floor apartment, depending on a dwindling supply of gas to ferry Mr. Brown to his dialysis treatments.

But they were resolute about voting. Asked whether the storm had changed his thinking about politics, Mr. Brown, 62, shook his head. "It changed my thinking about this planet," he said. "We're just screwing it up."

Suddenly it dawned on Ms. Brown that without television, they wouldn't be able to track the results. "That's going to be a drag," she said with a laugh. "This roughing it is some experience."

Surveying the scene, Mr. Luisi, the polling official, seemed dazed by how much his job had changed in recent days. That morning, he had arrived to find only a single generator on hand – and someone had siphoned off the gas, leaving it empty.

They located additional generators, gasoline, and portable toilets (they too were missing), opening to voters just before 7 a.m. More challenges lay ahead in a day that would end at midnight, but Mr. Luisi managed to sound buoyant. "Democracy can't stop," he said.