Sandy disrupts voting; Northeast braces for new storm

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy created chaos and long lines at voting stations in the U.S. Northeast on Tuesday while officials braced for a new storm due to batter the region on Wednesday.

The former hurricane that walloped New York and New Jersey eight days ago continued to create misery for the thousands who lost their homes and 900,000 households and businesses that remained without power.

Voters casting ballots for the U.S. president endured confusion at makeshift polling stations. In New York City’s Rockaways, a badly damaged barrier island community facing the Atlantic, people whose homes were damaged or destroyed or lacked power went to vote in a tent.

“This is OK,” said voter Alex Valger, comparing the polling place to near-freezing temperatures at home. “You ever try to sleep in a house where there is no heating control and the temperature outside is 34 (Fahrenheit)?”

In Brooklyn’s Coney Island neighborhood, still far from recovered from Sandy’s onslaught, voting had to be relocated from one school to another that lacked handicap access.

At least two voters had to be carried up the 17 steps, said Sally Stein, the polling place coordinator. Election board officials also made them relocate to another room halfway through the day because they considered the first room a fire hazard.

“I’m very disgusted today, very disgusted,” Stein said.

Still crawling out the devastation of Sandy, the region braced for a smaller but powerful storm, a nor’easter due to bring 60-mph (95-kph) winds and a mix of rain and snow on Wednesday and Thursday. Temperatures could dip toward freezing or below.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered all city parks and beaches closed at noon on Wednesday for at least 24 hours.

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“We just don’t need to send our first responders into the ocean to save someone who is being foolish,” Bloomberg said.

On the devastated Jersey Shore, a summer tourist haven where Sandy’s storm surge swallowed whole neighborhoods and pushed entire homes across the street, the town of Brick issued a mandatory evacuation order for waterfront neighborhoods.

Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean before it moved north, combined with a strong North Atlantic system, and roared ashore on the New Jersey coast on October 29 as a rare hybrid superstorm.

It killed at least 114 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.

The death toll rose when a Long Island man was killed on Tuesday morning when a storm-damaged tree he was cutting down fell and hit him in the head, Suffolk County police said.

While President Barack Obama was expected to win New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the states most affected by Sandy, the storm could spotlight the arcane Electoral College system that decides the presidency.

One possibility was 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, securing a second term.

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Officials confronted unprecedented challenges for Election Day across the region, where polling stations were among the thousands of buildings damaged by Sandy.

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 as late as Friday.

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.

Long lines were common.

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“It’s going to be thousands in here. We have seven poll sites combined into this one tent, so we have voters from all over the Rockaways coming here,” said Stephen Thompson, a training specialist for the Board of Elections who was working in the tented polling place.

In Bay Head, New Jersey, most residents had to flee inland for shelter after Sandy wrecked their exclusive seaside community but many were returning on Tuesday so they could vote. Some drove for two hours to get to the firehouse polling station.

“We’re very patriotic in this town,” said longtime resident Joanne Pehlivanian. “We’re going to vote no matter what.”

The scene was more confused in the New Jersey town of Hoboken, on the Hudson River facing Manhattan, which was inundated with storm surge.

Hoboken voter Jake Stuiver, carrying his 2-year-old daughter Naomi, said he was turned away from his normal voting place and sent to an alternate location, where his name was not on the list of eligible voters.

“And I saw about four people who’ve had a similar experience,” Stuiver said. “I’m carrying around a 2-year-old and she’s cranky. We’ve been sleeping in different locations all week because we were evacuated, you know what I mean? ... I’m a very motivated voter in this town so I’m going to vote, but if that wasn’t the case then I’m sure I’d have to move on to other things by now.”

Commuters around the region faced another taxing trip to work on Tuesday, although most found the effort somewhat less troublesome than on Monday, when typical commutes of 40 minutes or less stretched to several hours, particularly from New Jersey.

Many gas stations still lacked electricity or gasoline, and motorists endured long lines at the stations that were open. Fuel rationing was in force in New Jersey, where some residents hired school children to stand in line with gas cans.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Edith Honan, Philip Barbara, Chris Francescani, Kena Betancur and Sebastian Rocandio; Editing by Mohammad Zargham