HOBOKEN, N.J.—Three days before the election, workers sloshed through a mix of gasoline and storm water at North Hudson Community Action Corporation, a community center that was supposed to be a polling place in Hoboken, N.J. The wood floors, covered in sludge and contaminated water, were buckling. The power was out and the dark rooms smelled like fuel and wet, ruined sheetrock. The water totaled at least one voting machine.
After Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey residents were baffled about where they would vote. Many polling sites had been destroyed, and communications were down so some people couldn’t go online to find where they were supposed to go. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced that voters could submit their ballots by email. They also could vote in any precinct for the presidency or congressional races, but for local issues voters had to find their correct polling station. Google helped set up a text service for New Yorkers and New Jerseyans to find their new polling locations. In the five boroughs of New York City, the board of elections had to relocate 60 polling places because of damage from Sandy.
Sure, New York and New Jersey aren’t swing states in the presidential election, so if some displaced voters don’t make it to the polls it’s not likely to swing the presidency. But ballots offer choices on more than the presidency. In Hoboken, residents vote on school board members and three ballot initiatives.
Hoboken was one hard hit area that promised Election Day chaos. The city has the topography of a bathtub, as the mayor described it after Sandy hit, and the storm surge filled the city up just like that bathroom fixture. No one expected the extent of flooding the city experienced. The city government was busy helping its flooded residents get food, water, warmth, and transportation, so it was beyond stretched to refurbish polling centers in a matter of days. Even cell phone service was sporadic, so city officials resorted to communicating about the emergency an old-fashioned way: the mayor’s office taped notices on telephone poles.
A Jewish group from Minnesota helped keep the chaos at a minimum in the city. Nechama is a Jewish disaster relief group that specializes in flood and wind damage. The organization’s crew knows how to strip a flooded building down to its studs and sanitize it in short order. After the storm, Nechama’s crew drove from Minnesota to Hoboken with a trailer full of tools and supplies. One of its regular volunteers lives in Hoboken and went to the mayor’s office to tell the city that the organization was at its disposal and at no cost. The city said it needed a community center cleaned out. Nechama checked out the site Friday and agreed to take on the project. Only on Saturday, when the group began stripping the building down, did the workers learn that the city needed the community center for Election Day. Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, but Nechama’s staff and volunteers worked furiously.
Dan Hoeft, Nechama’s director of operations, who was leading the cleanup, said the scene in Hoboken reminded him of the devastating floods that hit Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008. Oddly enough, he had an Iowan working alongside him, a man who had driven a truckload of generators from Mason City to Hoboken to power relief work. “This is the biggest thing to hit here, ever,” Hoeft said.
One man ripped out the floors. Another ran a Shop Vac to suck up the remaining water. Bette Birnbaum, the volunteer who made the connection with the mayor’s office, squeegeed the stripped floors of oily water and sludge. A volunteer told Hoeft that the gas was still on in the kitchen. Another discovered that there was still food in the refrigerator—which had gone bad.
One rule of cleanup operations, Hoeft told the volunteer, “Never, ever, ever open a refrigerator.”
By Monday evening, the city had restored power to the building and cleaned up most polling places. Hoeft texted me on Monday that the building looked ready to go. “Just found out voting WILL be here tomorrow,” he wrote. “Another voting site is moving here as well!”