As Hurricane Sandy barreled toward the northeastern United States on Monday afternoon, former President Bill Clinton offered a tongue-in-cheek warning to Democrats at a rally for the Senate campaign of Democratic candidate Chris Murphy in Connecticut.
“We’re coming to the 11th hour. We’re facing a violent storm,” said Clinton. He paused, then added, “It’s nothing compared to the storm we’ll face if you don’t make the right decision in this election.”
The crowd erupted in cheers, and Clinton later moved on to campaign stops for President Barack Obama in Ohio.
Regardless of political affiliation, Hurricane Sandy was no joke. The mega-storm that ripped into the New Jersey shoreline and hammered parts of New York City on Monday night killed at least 17 people in seven states and cut power to more than 6 million homes.
In the Breezy Point section of Queens, N.Y., some homes suffered far worse than power outages: Firefighters battled a roaring blaze in the flooded area that destroyed at least 80 homes by daylight on Tuesday. (Residents had evacuated the neighborhood ahead of the storm.)
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie called the damage “incalculable.” Before sunset on Monday, parts of Atlantic City were underwater, and the governor said the storm had devastated the Jersey Shore. The state’s officials had ordered mandatory evacuations for some 116,000 New Jersey citizens, though some had remained in their homes. By Monday evening, the National Guard was trying to rescue some 500 people who stayed in Atlantic City.
In New York City, the storm caused unprecedented damage to the city’s subway system: Waters flooded at least seven subway tunnels under the East River. Joseph J. Lhota of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said he didn’t have a timeline for when the subway system would re-open: “In our 108 years, our employees have never faced a challenge like the one that confronts us now.”
Thousands of other New York City—and East Coast—residents faced challenges as well: The storm shut down the city’s airports, schools, commuter trains, and some key bridges. Waves spilled over the sea wall in lower Manhattan, flooding the financial district, and leaving cars floating in the streets.
Other damage was irreversible: Police reported that a 30-year-old man in Queens died after a tree fell on his home Monday evening. Two boys—ages 11 and 13—died from similar injuries in North Salem, N.Y.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in New York and New Jersey that will make the states eligible for federal aid. Early estimates pegged the damage between $10 billion and $20 billion.
The president suspended campaign events to focus on storm preparation and response from Washington, D.C. (The capital endured heavy rains and wind, but escaped severe damage.) Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney turned a Monday night campaign event in Ohio into a storm relief effort.
Both campaigns face a delicate balance of addressing the storm damage and managing the final week of a presidential campaign that will end with voting on next Tuesday. For the moment, the relentless campaigning took something close to a breather. “It’s sort of like Mother Nature is intervening and calling a timeout,” presidential biographer Douglas Brinkley told the Associated Press.
How that timeout will affect the election remains unclear. Some speculated it would blunt some of Romney’s momentum heading into the final stretch, and perhaps boost Obama if the federal government responds well to the crisis.
Other pundits doubted that the crisis would have a major impact on the already-close election. Back in New Jersey, Gov. Christie didn’t care. “I have a job in New Jersey that is much bigger than presidential politics,” he said on Fox News’ Fox & Friends. “I couldn’t care less about that.”