Democracy and Disaster in New York's Sandy-battered Staten Island

The electorate of Sandy-battered Staten Island had every excuse not to vote yesterday, yet still these "forgotten borough" residents came to the polls in their droves.

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
Related Topics

On Election Day, the free, 25-minute ferry service to Staten Island was crowded with tourists. More interested in photographing the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan’s landmark skyline, most of them made a round-trip back downtown without setting foot on the ferry’s intended destination, perhaps unaware of the humanitarian crisis unfolding there. Meanwhile, residents of the suburban island filled out election ballots amidst shattered houses and bodies still washing up on the shore, even while complaining that politicians had not been there for them when they needed them the most.

At New Dorp High School, it is like no previous election. The small talk in the queues to polling booths revolved around the aftershock. Was everyone all right? Did the house survive? Had there been any looting? A week had passed since the storm ravaged shorelines, swept away homes and killed an unconfirmed number. Unlike the homes around it, the school had survived the storm. Less than a mile away, on Midland Beach, a poll station was so damaged by the hurricane that voters had to cast their ballots in tents. 

The once sleepy, seaside suburbia feels more like Haiti, after the earthquake, than an American small town. With an American flag decorating almost every house, or ruin, it looks more like a caricature.

The community’s electorate would have had better excuses than most Americans not to vote. Some had lost their homes and all of their belongings. The majority of residences still lacked electricity. In the wake of a disaster that displaced so many, Staten Islanders were permitted to cast affidavit ballots, that is, they were allowed to vote in other election districts. Yet many came to the poll station in person.

It is yet unclear how the storm has affected electoral participation on Staten Island but several election administrators commented on the high turnout.

“It is busier than I’ve ever seen,” said voter Christopher O’Brien, 35, whose seaside family house was flooded up to the kitchen counters.

Rolinda Parmigiani, 60, an election coordinator who has worked at the district’s polling station for 22 years agreed. “Today is beyond,” she said.

Perhaps it was the normality of the voting procedure in a prevailing state of emergency that residents found appealing. Or maybe it was the personal stakes vested in the aftermath that raised political awareness. Steven Arangi, 23, who has not had electricity for a week, believed that the hardships, if anything, made locals more inclined to vote.  “This tragedy happened,” he said. “Now people want the right person to clean it up.”

Sandy may, or may not, have changed the political demographics of New York's only Republican borough. With immense financial and humanitarian costs to the island and Mitt Romney’s back-and-forthing on the shape and existence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), from which many victims are hoping to claim disaster grants, the election outcome seemed difficult to predict.

Unsurprisingly, disaster response skyrocketed to the top of voters’ political priority lists. “After all of this, there is no question Obama will win,” said Eugene Tutaro, 23, adding that the election would be “a landslide.” Russell Rogers, 52, said the hurricane would make people reconsider voting red. “Romney said he’d do away with FEMA,” he said. “Even the Republicans I know don’t like him.”

The polling station was only a few minutes walk away from one of the epicenters of the hurricane’s damage. Several houses were entirely flattened by the flood, many more evacuated. A number of homes had been looted. Shortly after sundown, at 5pm, a curfew was issued. Generator-powered spotlights lit the neighborhood, as volunteers and national guards continued their rescue efforts.

For Staten Islanders who have long complained that the city ignores them, what was widely perceived as delayed response to the catastrophe only seemed to confirm their isolation.“We’re an island,” said Jim O’Donell, 48, as he exited the high school. “We’re not sexy, like Manhattan. We’re separated from the city. It’s always been that way.”

Perhaps capitalizing on the residents’ disillusion, Republican congressman Michael Grimm, currently being investigated over fraud allegations, seemed to have made up for ground lost among his constituents. For many residents, praise for his personal involvement in the rescue work has overshadowed any personal opinions of President Obama’s performance.

“He came down here 8am the morning after the hurricane to help out and has been around since,” said Kelly Griswold-Traina. Her home was hit by Sandy on the 46th anniversary of the day her parents first moved in. With the whole front wall missing, swallowed by the sea, it looked reminiscent of London in the Blitz.

 “Grimm has been fantastic,” she said in tears. “He even handed out cash from his own pocket to people in the neighborhood.”

Many Staten Islanders said they have been unhappy with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s and the city government’s disaster response. They feel that their borough has fallen into the shadows, even though it was one of the areas hardest hit by what New Yorkers call the biggest disaster since 9/11. “Whenever we need something they’re not there. Staten Islanders help Staten Islanders,” said Janice Kennedy, 41, whose grey wooden house was smashed by the record-breaking hurricane tide, leaving only the roof behind. “We really are the forgotten borough.”

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Installation Manager

£35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Tax Investigations Manager/Senior Manager

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits: Cameron Kennedy Recruitment: This rapidl...

Scrum Master - Southampton, Hampshire - Excellent Package

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited:...

Senior Scrum Master - Hampshire - £47k

£47000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Key skil...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Spy chief speaks on the record: "Thank you, and that's it, really"

John Rentoul

The daily catch-up: fathers looking after children, World Cup questions and Nostradamus

John Rentoul
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice