All through Election Day, weary and chilled voters converged on the big white tent that served as a makeshift polling place amidst the devastation in Rockaway. These citizens were in their eighth day without lights or heat. Many, like 60-year-old Raul Romero, also were without running water.
But they still had a vote. And they were determined to exercise it, though Romero had not been at all sure he would be able to cast his ballot when he descended a pitch-dark stairway from his family’s 14th floor apartment and started across the hurricane-ravaged peninsula.
“I saw the tent, I said, ‘Maybe that’s the voting!’” he recalled.
It was indeed, and he was beaming when he emerged from having participated in democracy that seemed that much more splendid in such trying circumstances.
“I’m so happy,” Romero announced. “I’m really, really happy!”
His smile seemed not at all improbable, for long before this or any other polls closed, here was a clear victory for everyone who was able to make a choice, whatever that choice might be.
A host of others arrived at the tent seeming equally pleased despite being weary and chilled, the very conditions adding import to their vote.
New York was not a swing state, so Obama and Romney had not been fighting for these votes as they had in Ohio. The fight here was for the voters to get to the polls. And they were still coming strong as the sun began to sink and another night without power approached. Several generator-powered lights illuminated the tent.
“Lights! Lights! Lights!” a young woman exclaimed. “They got lights!”
A car with Iowa license plates pulled up and out stepped Mike Moran, the New York City firefighter who had achieved international celebrity after 9/11, when he took to the stage at a televised benefit and told Osama bin Laden to “kiss my royal Irish ass.”
At the wheel of the car was Mike’s wife, Donna Moran. She remains at heart an Iowa girl, and she had driven to her native state to vote. She had chanced to schedule her trip on the week before Sandy hit.
The bad luck of her timing had not become completely clear until the night the storm struck and she made a series of cell phone calls to her husband back at their home on a beach block in Rockaway. She was repeatedly disconnected, but snatches of what did come through made apparent the magnitude of the storm.
“It’s bad … It’s up to the middle step … It’s coming through the door!”
Donna rented a big truck and began filling it with gas cans, pumps, shop-vacs and everything else they and their neighbors were likely to need. She packed in eight generators and was preparing to leave when a local famer came over and handed her $50.
“He said, ‘Here’s money for gas,’” Donna recalls.
Her sister, Marie, agreed to come along as a second driver for the two-vehicle relief convoy. Their father gave them a can of wasp spray, in the belief it would be more effective than Mace should they encounter looters or other evildoers.
Upon their arrival in Rockaway on Friday, the sisters were stunned by the destruction they beheld. They began going to neighbors with what they had been able to deliver with the help of an Iowa farmer 1,200 miles away.
“That felt really good,” Donna says.
Help from the government and relief organizations had been slow in coming. The first uniformed figure Mike saw come down the block was not from disaster relief, but Fed Ex with a package containing a shower curtain a neighbor happened to have ordered before the storm.
“Does Fred Smith still run your company?” Mike called out the Fed Ex guy. “Could you ask him to come run the recovery?’”
By Election Day, the Sanitation Department and a private contractor had cleared much of the sand that choked the block. The debris that Mike lugged from his basement with the assistance of some friends and fellow firefighters was carted away to a parking lot, where it joined untold tons of other storm victims’ ruined possessions.
One item that Mike saved was a photo taken of several ironworkers at the topping- off of the nearly completed Freedom Tower that rose in place of the World Trade Center. An ironworker is flashing a moon bearing a shamrock and a handwritten caption quotes Mike’s famous line.
One thing that had not yet been recovered was a memorial—which had stood at the end of the block—to Mike’s brother, FDNY Battalion Chief John Moran, who was killed on 9/11. Mike told the clean-up workers to keep going and worry about looking for it later.
Donna had already voted in Iowa, but Mike had yet to cast his vote as the day was consumed with tearing out ruined paneling and sheet rock in the basement, then setting out in search of gas.
“I’m just going to clean up and grab a couple of sandwiches and go vote,” he finally said.
As he ate with Donna and her sister, the talk was not of the election, but of the nor'easter that was supposed to hit the next day. The information they hungered for was not voter turnout in swing states but the progress of that storm. They also wondered how much insurance might cover of the damage and loss.
“We’ve been getting so little information about anything,” Donna said.
After being delayed by a water leak in the basement, Mike set off to for the polls. His car had floated down the block and was ruined. So they climbed into Donna’s car with its Iowa license plates. She waited in the car as he strode into the tent where voters were still crowding in.
The other firefighters Mike saw included George Johnson, who had been one of those who raised the flag in the iconic 9/11 photo. There was another firefighter who came over and said he had just gotten hot water. He knew what he and his family were going to do after he voted.
“We’re all going to take showers!” the firefighter said.
Mike checked in at the 10th electoral district, got his ballot, made marks next to his choices and fed it into the scanner. He then returned to the car.
Mike and Donna might have watched the results at the same bar where he celebrated the death of Bin Laden, which would have only been approprriate because the president who ordered Bin Laden killed was re-elected, no doubt in part because of the success of that mission.
"My civic duty is done, “ he said. “I’m not sure where we’re going to watch the returns.”
Had there been electricity in Rockaway, Mike and Donna might have watched the results at the same bar where he celebrated the death of Bin Laden. That would have only been appropriate, because the president who ordered Bin Laden killed was re-elected, no doubt in part because of the success of that mission.
Another factor was Hurricane Sandy, which gave Obama the opportunity to stop being a candidate and become an incumbent president. His response to the storm had even won over Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey, resulting images of the two of them together and sound bites of mutual praise that were more powerful than any political ad.
If Sarah (Palin) helped elected Obama last time, Sandy (Hurricane) did this time.
Now that Obama has another four years, he can concentrate on helping all the hurricane struck communities recover. You might say he owes them. And winter is fast approaching for Mike and Donna and Raul and everybody else who spent election day in darkness and cold.