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Storm-weary voters in US Northeast face delays, confusion

Tuesday, 6 November 2012 - 8:51pm IST | Agency: Reuters
Already exhausted from a massive cleanup and nightmarish commutes to work, thousands of US voters in storm-struck New York and New Jersey encountered confusion and long lines as they tried to cast ballots in a cliffhanger presidential election.

Already exhausted from a massive cleanup and nightmarish commutes to work, thousands of US voters in storm-struck New York and New Jersey encountered confusion and long lines as they tried to cast ballots in a cliffhanger presidential election.

Election officials face unprecedented challenges across the US Northeast, where polling stations were among the thousands of buildings damaged by superstorm Sandy eight days ago.

New York and New Jersey took measures to ease the way for residents already coping with devastating flood damage, power outages and widespread fuel shortages. Sandy roared ashore on the Jersey coast on Oct. 29 as a rare hybrid superstorm after killing 69 people in the Caribbean and then merging with a strong North Atlantic system.

It killed at least 113 in the United States and Canada and knocked out power to millions of people while swamping seaside towns and inundating New York City's streets and subway tunnels. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said New Yorkers would be able to vote at any polling place by presenting an affidavit. In New Jersey, those affected by Sandy will be designated as overseas voters, allowing them to cast ballots by fax or email. "We want everyone to vote. Just because you are displaced doesn't mean you should be disenfranchised," Cuomo said.

Cuomo's order appeared to create confusion among poll workers, with paper ballots and affidavits in some cases being distributed even to voters who arrived at their regular polling place as opposed to only those whose assigned voting station was elsewhere. At a voting precinct set up in an unheated tent in the Rockaways, a beachfront community in the New York City borough of Queens that was hit hard by Sandy, voting was delayed for about a half hour while poll workers struggled with the generators.

By 7 am, about 50 voters - including some who had lost their homes and traveled from temporary lodgings to get here - had starting filling out ballots. "We wanted to be the first ones in and out," said Melissa Hays, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives in the Rockaways but has been staying with relatives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush since the storm.

"Once the sun comes up, it's going to get crazy here." Voting at the YMCA on West 63rd Street in Manhattan was delayed because election officials could not find the ballot cards and scanners were not working properly. Among those arriving to vote there was Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of investment banking powerhouse Goldman Sachs. He left before voting there began.

While President Barack Obama was expected to win easily in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the states most affected by Sandy, the storm could expose fissures in the arcane Electoral College system that decides the presidency. One possibility is that low voter turnout in storm-ravaged states could allow Republican challenger Mitt Romney to win the popular vote even if Obama wins the state-by-state Electoral College race. Romney and Obama are virtually tied in pre-election polls.

Some 1.4 million homes and businesses were still without power or heat as temperatures dropped below the freezing mark across much of the area overnight. More than 217,000 people have registered for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and about $199 million in aid has been provided.

The exhausted region faced the prospect of a new storm - a strong "nor'easter" forecast to bring frigid temperatures and more rain and wind by the middle of the week. With the ground in coastal New Jersey towns still saturated with ocean water, officials feared the nor'easter could flood them again. In Belmar, Lake Como and Spring Lake, officials pumped out three lakes to allow groundwater to drain into them.

"By draining the lakes, we're lowering the water table in the neighbourhoods around them," Mayor Matt Doherty of Belmar said on Monday. "We did this last year with Hurricane Irene and we found it made a difference." Just a couple of towns to the south in Brick, town officials have issued a mandatory evacuation for waterfront neighbourhoods in advance of the new storm system's arrival. Residents of those areas must leave by 6 pm Tuesday, the town said. In New York City, most of the 15,070 schools reopened on Monday but 57 suffered structural damage, 19 lacked power and 16 were closed because they were being used as shelters, officials said.

Schools were closed again Tuesday for Election Day. Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed a director of housing recovery operations to assist 30,000 to 40,000 people in need of shelter. With the region's transportation network still disrupted a week after the storm, commuters stood for an hour or more on train platforms or street corners in New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut on Monday waiting for trains and buses.

The New York City subway ran at about 80% of its normal service. Motorists endured long lines at gas stations. Many stations still lacked electricity or gasoline. Fuel rationing was in force in New Jersey, where some residents hired school children to stand in line with gas cans. Wreckage from the storm was spread far and wide.

On Long Island's southeastern shore, Southampton Town Trustee Bill Pell spent Monday on a boat in the bays, retrieving 275-gallon (1,040-litre) home fuel tanks that had been uprooted by the storm. "We started getting calls over the weekend about fuel tanks floating in the bay," said Pell, 52, a fourth-generation resident of eastern Long Island.

"While we were out retrieving fuel tanks in the bay, the bay constables were going after looters, who are now trying to access these areas by sea to loot the houses." Crime had dropped 27% in New York City in the last week compared to the same period last year, the police department said, but burglaries were up 6 percent.


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