NEW YORK -- Voting in the U.S. presidential election was the latest challenge for the hundreds of thousands of people in the New York-New Jersey area still affected by Superstorm Sandy, as they struggled to get to undamaged polling places to cast their ballots in one of the tightest elections in recent American history.
The campaigns of both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have long assumed that the heavily Democratic region would support Obama, but determined voters were taking special election shuttle buses from storm-hit areas and voting by affidavit from any polling place they could reach after officials put emergency measures in place.
Early turnout appeared high, despite some malfunctioning machines and confusion over where to go. At least one polling site with power was lit with flares. Some voted by flashlight.
Some polling places were in tents, and some voters were in tears.
"Oh my God, I have been so anxious about being able to vote," said 73-year-old Annette DeBona of hard-hit Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, who was there at dawn. "This is the happiest vote I ever cast in my life."
Tens of thousands of people along the U.S. Atlantic coast, many of them in public housing projects, continued to scramble for housing options a week after the storm as overnight temperatures remained near freezing and power had not yet returned. A few desperate people burned their furniture for warmth.
More than 1 million people remained without power as officials worried about the approach of yet another storm Wednesday, smaller than Sandy but with the potential for more power outages, rising waters, heavy rain and gusts of up to 60 mph (96 kph).
Forecasters on Tuesday said the storm would be weaker than first expected, but winds could gust to 50 mph (80 kph) in New York and New Jersey on Wednesday afternoon and evening. Storm surges are expected to reach perhaps 3 feet (a meter).
While city officials strongly encouraged storm-ravaged communities to seek higher ground before Wednesday’s storm, some adamantly refused to leave, fearing lootes.
There are few reports of looting storm-damaged homes. But Alex Ocasio wasn’t convinced. The nursing home worker planned to ride out the latest storm in his first-floor Rockaway, Queens apartment.
As the water receded, men dressed in dark clothes broke down his door and were surprised to find him and other residents inside. "They tried to say they were rescue workers, then took off," he said.
He put up a handmade sign—"Have gun. Will shoot U"—outside his apartment and started using a bed frame to barricade the door.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said it wasn’t wise to stay put. "I think your life is more important than property," he said.
Kelly said police have arrested 123 people citywide since the storm blew in last week, 54 burglary arrests and 41 others stemming from gas line disputes. Police said the majority were in areas suffering from the storm.
Burglaries were up 6 percent citywide compared to the same period last year, but overall crime was down 27 percent, police said.
As hours-long lines at gas stations eased, housing remained the region’s most pressing problem.
"It’s not going to be a simple task. It’s going to be one of the most complicated and long-term recovery efforts in U.S. history," said Mark Merritt, president of Witt Associates, a Washington crisis management consulting firm founded by former Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt.
FEMA said it has already dispensed close to $200 million in emergency housing assistance and had put 34,000 people in New York and New Jersey up in hotels and motels. But local, state and federal officials have yet to lay out a specific, comprehensive plan for finding them long-term places to live in an already densely developed region around the largest U.S. city.
Sandy killed more 100 people in 10 U.S. states, almost all of them in New York and New Jersey. At least 69 people died in the Caribbean in the days before Sandy reached the U.S. mainland.
Because so many people have been displaced, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order allowing people to vote in Tuesday’s elections at any polling place in the state. New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie allowed balloting by email and fax.
"Just because you are displaced doesn’t mean you are disenfranchised," Cuomo said. "Compared to what we have had to deal with in the past week, this will be a walk in the park when it comes to voting."
Officials had yet to even establish the magnitude of the problem.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the worst-case estimate is 40,000 people, half of them in public housing, need shelter.
The mayor ordered three nursing homes and an adult care facility evacuated from the Rockaways because of fears the weather might knock out electricity already being provided by generators. About 620 residents were being moved.
Bloomberg said as many as 20,000 will probably get their heat and power back within a few days. Ultimately, the number of people who need longer-term housing could be under 10,000, he said.
In New Jersey, state officials said they were still trying to figure out how many people will need long-term housing. At least 4,000 residents were in New Jersey shelters.