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.

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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.”

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