Hurricane Sandy’s disenfranchised victims in New Jersey struggle to rebuild

A devastated post-superstorm New Jersey is scrambling to recover, let alone prepare for Election Day.

Hurricane Sandy laid waste to the small town of Little Ferry, New Jersey [AP]
Hurricane Sandy laid waste to the small town of Little Ferry, New Jersey [AP]

While much of the destruction wrought by superstorm Sandy was on communities long accustomed to flooding, this cannot be said for Little Ferry and Moonachie – two New Jersey towns in the Meadowlands region of northeastern Bergen county. “We’ve never had a drop of water here on the street before,” a woman clearing wreckage from her now-blighted home told me Friday night. “Not even an inch.”

But by some hazily-understood sequence of events, the freakish storm caused a berm along the nearby Hackensack River to overflow, ravaging several unprepared boroughs. The Moonachie woman, who identified only as “C”, said local police knocked on her door Tuesday, but she refused to evacuate. Myriad debris – water-logged furniture, all sorts of ruined possessions, tree branches, inoperable cars – were strewn everywhere across her decimated block. The woman’s photos, decorations, important documents, furniture, clothing, and personal items have been destroyed, she told me. Assorted emergency vehicles, including mammoth National Guard trucks, roved the area – now a disconcertingly common sight all throughout New Jersey.

Amidst these disastrous circumstances, local authorities must somehow hold elections on Tuesday. “I don’t know where people are going to vote,” said the rattled Moonachie resident. “The municipal building is gone. The firehouse is gone.” Neighbours concurred with this assessment. “There hasn’t been any communications,” said Andrew Guevera of forthcoming Election Day arrangements. Guevera watched, forlorn, as a worker removed rubble from his “gutted” property. “The priority is making sure people are alright.”

Huge swaths of New Jersey are still without power, including urban centres like Hoboken, Atlantic City, Newark, Edison, and Jersey City, which would probably contribute to depressed voter turnout in those areas. But even if electricity were magically restored statewide tonight, massive logistical complications would still loom. “It becomes a matter of how they’re going to find where to go, how to get people to the polls,” said Chief Larry Minda of the East Rutherford Police Department. Relative to neighbouring Moonachie and Little Ferry, his town had been spared – there were a few evacuations along the Passaic River, but nothing treacherous. Having taken stock of the area, however, he sighed: “I have no idea what they’ll do on Tuesday.”

I first encountered Minda as he oversaw activity at an Exxon gas station abutting the highway near Metlife Stadium, where the Giants play. A queue of cars stretched for at least two miles by 6:00pm; the official wait time to fill up, according to one officer, was four hours and ten minutes. But Steve Aitchinson told me he’d waited around five. Doing so was necessary, Aitchinson said, because he had to drive to Morris Plains on Monday, where he works as a school custodian. Students are scheduled to resume classes then.

Damage to the Port of Newark has crippled fuel distribution to these New York City suburbs; Governor Chris Christie instituted a rations regimen as of Saturday. Though tensions were high at the East Rutherford Exxon, officers cited no major incidents. They did complain that detectives and other department personnel, including the chief himself, are now preoccupied with disaster-relief duties outside their normal purview. “I’m here 32 years, and I’m out directing traffic,” Chief Minda said.

Circumstances have deteriorated much more dramatically along the NJ coastline. Already-fragile barrier islands are totally wiped out; I was denied entry to Long Beach Island in Ocean County. Due to continued power outages in Brick Township, motorists were left to coordinate safe passage through dangerous intersections amongst themselves. In Manasquan, frustrated police officers threatened media with arrest for attempting to inspect damage near the beach (as a lifelong visitor of these beaches, I can report that they are now virtually unrecognisable).

The enormity of the crisis in New Jersey has not yet been fully grasped by national media. While shore locales are typically associated with luxury, innumerable working-to-upper middle class homes have also been devastated – in addition to multi-million dollar waterfront mansions. At Seaside Heights, the foreboding odor of gas leaks is now ubiquitous; Police Chief Tom Boyd cried describing the situation to WNYC radio. 

On Wednesday I visited Atlantic City, five miles north of where Sandy made landfall. President Barack Obama and Governor Christie toured the devastation in Brigantine, just across the bay. Many poor, primarily black residents who live in the shadows of the iconic casinos had been scattered – fled to shelters or with relatives – and were not even being allowed back in the city yet. For those who stayed behind, preparing to vote was hardly a consideration.

Lives are still at risk. It is now getting very cold, and the elderly are without heat. People cannot fuel their cars to go to work, nevermind drive to the polls. Turnout across New Jersey will almost certainly be low on Tuesday, which would likely favour Mitt Romney. Further, those displaced by the storm are disproportionately low-income people of colour, a crucial Democratic party constituency.

Expecting citizens who have been traumatised by the largest Atlantic Ocean storm ever recorded to hold elections next week is not just unrealistic – it’s callous.

Michael Tracey is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.

Follow him on Twitter: @mtracey

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