Sandy victims struggle to polls; vote 'is only thing I have left'

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Voters devastated by superstorm Sandy -- many of whom were left homeless and broke -- doggedly made their way to makeshift polls even as they tried to rebuild their lives, with one saying her right to cast a ballot “is the only thing I have left.”

On New York’s Staten Island, FEMA workers were going door-to-door, still expecting to find bodies, shovel-bearing U.S. Marines stood by ready to help and weary-eyed residents, many wearing surgical masks, stood outside their wrecked homes.


“Yes, I voted,” Mona Schriver, 68, a nurse at Staten Island University Hospital, told “I voted because it's the only thing I have left. Everything else is gone."

Schriver’s neighbors in the Midland Beach section of Staten Island’s South Shore said they were left to depend on the grapevine for instructions on how and where to vote. Pat Nelson, 59, said her daughter set up an alert on her cellphone that notified her to vote at a school near her home. But Nelson was angry that no official notification was given to residents.

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"Nobody has come around,” Nelson said. “Nobody has said go vote here, or there. If you don't have power, you don't hear anything, you can't do anything -- but I will vote."

Election officials in New Jersey and New York, the states whose coasts were hardest hit by last week’s storm, said nearly all polling sites had power and were fully operational. Contingency plans to have Army trucks serve as voting booths or use paper ballots were put aside. But the fact that polls were open did not guarantee turnout from a storm-battered electorate.

At a public school in Staten Island's Midland Beach, flares were set up at an entrance to provide light, and voting machines were brought out of the school to tents where voters braved 29-degree temperatures. Voters arriving at another Staten Island school found no official signage directing them to a new polling place, but some were taken to the correct location by a shuttle bus, officials said. A hand-written sign eventually was placed at the school's driveway.

In New Jersey, state 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 dropped an 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.

Gauging turnout was difficult, given that some polling sites were consolidated. But lines were relatively long in Point Pleasant, N.J., where residents of the Sandy-battered communities of Point Pleasant Beach and Mantoloking had to cast their votes. Several said they were still without power eight days after the storm struck.

"Oh my God, I have been so anxious about being able to vote," said Annette DeBona, 73, 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."

DeBona was so worried about not being able to vote that she called the police several days in advance to make sure she knew where to go and when. She was one of the first to cast a ballot in her neighboring town, choosing Mitt Romney.

"I truly believe Romney is an honest, caring man," she said. "He will lift us out of our spiritual and mental depression and help us believe again."

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. She said her preference for President Obama was strengthened by his response to superstorm Sandy.

Bill Privett, 47, an IT director who lives in Brick, said he was eager to cast his vote for Romney.

"I haven't missed an election in over 20 years, but I've never felt my vote meant more than this time at the polls, even here in New Jersey," Privett said.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter at the Pine Belt Arena at Toms River North High School, where some 350 residents displaced from Seaside Heights were staying. A truck was set up Monday night for early voting, but storm victims told only around a dozen people voted. A regular polling station was set up Tuesday at the school, but no one from the shelter seemed to be casting ballots.

"I just couldn't deal with it,” said Tom Devine, 47, who lost his home in Seaside Heights, N.J. “I’ve got so much on my mind. I'm trying to find an apartment. I lost everything. I just can't deal with voting."

Rep. Michael Grimm, (R-Staten Island), was proud of voters who were getting to the polls, but realistic about turnout.

"It's low turnout in the most devastated areas and rightfully so," Grimm said. "People are worried about their families, about where their next meal will come from.The shock has now worn off and reality of just how hard its going to be to rebuild is starting to set in."

But Tarek Moustafa and MaryLou Wong, whose home in Midland Beach, Staten Island, was one of the worst hit, said they will vote. The couple lost everything in Hurricane Irene last year, and had only begun to recover when Sandy wiped them out again. Staring at all of their ruined possessions on the curb as the waited for FEMA inspectors to tell them their house is condemned, Wong spoke for many of her neighbors.

"Yes, we're going to vote,” she said. “That's the one thing we can do. We have nothing else. Everything else is gone."