Democracy and disaster on Staten Island

Carol Vicinanza shows how high the water came the night Sandy arrived, and she and her family had to swim out a window to safety. Photo: Beth Morrissey

Staten Islanders affected by Hurricane Sandy are passionate — and divided — about the importance of voting today.

The presence of the elections was felt strongly in the storm-stricken borough. The Staten Island Ferry is peppered with ads to re-elect Rep. Michael Grimm. His opponent, Mark Murphy, was in the ferry terminal this morning greeting Manhattan-bound commuters. “I think everybody is going to vote today,” said Murphy optimistically.

Some island residents, like Donna Dimino, who lives near the corner of Olympia Boulevard and Norway Avenue, an area hit by flooding, is among many Staten Islanders translating strong feelings about government response to superstorm Sandy into votes at the polls. Although she did not express a preference about the congressional race, she was frustrated with the relief effort response, and made it clear that she was not voting for President Barack Obama’s reelection.

“They didn’t get to us for two days,” she said of the relief efforts. “Our basement was flooded with five feet of water.”

A few blocks away, on the corner of Nugent Avenue and Quintard Street, the despair is the same, but sentiment about voting different. Carol Vicinanza and her family were emptying all of their possessions out of their first-floor apartment Tuesday afternoon.

“We couldn’t open the front door,” she said, as she described how on the night of the storm she and her family pushed open a window and swam up to the second floor of the house.

She is pessimistic about the prospect of finding time to vote today. “No I can’t,” said Vicinanza. “Let other people vote.”

Further along the shore, toward New Dorp Beach, the destruction caused by the storm became more obvious, and Humvees rolled through the streets. People spent Election Day clearing out their homes, dumping everything from drywall to personal belongings on the street.

New Dorp High School, a few blocks from the beach, hosted a polling station inside the school and a disaster recovery center on the field right next to it. Inside the polling station, the coordinator said that about 1,000 people voted by 3 p.m., including some 100 who voted using provisional ballots — some from those helping with the relief efforts outside.

But not all of them. “That’s the least of my worries,” said Nick Rubino, 47, who drove down from upstate New York to volunteer to help with the cleanup effort. Rubino is a carpenter who grew up on Staten Island; he plans on helping to rebuild houses as the cleanup effort progresses. As he passed out water and fruit, he stood next to Marge Remmick, 65, who is also volunteering at the relief center outside the school.

“Voting is a priority,” said Remmick, because she wants to see changes in environmental policy. “If this storm doesn’t wake people up to global warming, I don’t know what will.”

The importance of voting was echoed today some others at the distribution center, including former congressman Michael McMahon.

“You can bet the ranch I’m going to vote today,” said McMahon, as he hauled bags of trash out of the distribution center and into a waiting garbage truck. “Even amidst all this turmoil and sorrow. It’s most important thing we do as members of this great society.”

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