Civic Duty vs. Clean-Up Work in Staten Island

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The forces of democracy and nature fought over Staten Island Tuesday, with many residents filling out their Election Day ballots even as they struggled to clean up the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy last week.

The juxtaposition of storm and ballot could be seen across the borough, with many makeshift polling sites sharing a roof or a plot of land with a relief center.

New Dorp High School served both roles, with a polling station inside and a relief center of tents and trailers outside. There, FEMA, the Red Cross, the NYPD and other organizations offered free food, diapers, Dunkin’ Donuts and a mobile All State insurance table for filing insurance claims.

Red Cross volunteer Mary Ellen Fontana said that her priority was helping her neighbors, not getting herself to her polling site on the other side of the borough. “If I get home in time, I’ll vote,” she said. “They’re open until 9 tonight. It’s not at the top of my list today.” In the wake of the storm, she expressed little optimism for either candidate’s likelihood of helping Staten Island.

Despite the crisp morning air, New Dorp smells of the rot left by Sandy. Ellen Gorman is among those for whom voting is a distant priority right now. On Tuesday morning, she sat in a chair at the end of her driveway on Colony Avenue, waiting for an insurance adjuster. She was accompanied by her sister and what’s left of the block around her ruined home, where water-logged furniture and debris are the neighborhood’s largest population. Water from the storm nearly reached the second level of her home.

“The smell of the house is unbearable,” Gorman said. “You can’t sit in the house.”

Still, people made it to the polls. The city Board of Elections provided shuttles in some areas of Staten Island to take voters to and from polls. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also issued an executive order Monday allowing people to vote for statewide offices at any polling site they could get to, though those ballots would not include local races.

A coordinator for the makeshift polling station at Olivet Presbyterian Church in West Brighton said at least 300 voters had already trudged through the doors by 10 a.m. “There’s a steady stream of voters and that’s what matters,” John Vanworkum said.

Voter Susan Dandorf made it a point to get to her polling station. The storm, if anything, “made me stronger about getting myself here,” she said. “As far as I can see – and I’ve lived here 30 years – the current government hasn’t stepped forward.”

Dandorf voted for Mitt Romney and for Michael Grimm, the freshman incumbent for the 11th Congressional District, which includes Staten Island and part of Brooklyn. Running against political newcomer Mark Murphy, a Democrat, Grimm is New York City’s only Republican in Congress.

Nearby, John Clacher couldn’t be dissuaded from voting, not by Sandy or anything else, he said: “It’s the ballot box or the cartridge box. Fortunately we still have the ballot box. I’m more afraid of the power of a tyrannical government than any act of nature.”

But in Staten Island, where the storm killed at least 19 people and left many more homeless, nature trounced just about everything. As Gorman waited for her insurance adjustor with no idea when he would arrive, she mused that she would like to vote today. Her polling site is only a 10-minute walk away, normally manageable, but not today. “Perhaps I’ll go,” she said. “If I could call in my vote, I would.”

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