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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Storm disrupts campaigns, may affect voting

A tree fell on a house on Harvard

A tree fell on a house on Harvard Street near New Hyde Park Road in Garden City. (Oct. 29, 2012) Credit: Newsday/ Audrey C. Tiernan

First-term state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) could have been expected to campaign this week in his Suffolk district since he faces Democrat Francis Genco at the polls Tuesday. Zeldin did bounce around the district in a Jeep Tuesday -- but with the sober mission of viewing, and looking to help, emergency operations.

Rather than grip and grin, the rookie incumbent surveyed grim conditions from Mastic to Brentwood. It was a soaked and battered landscape dotted with waterborne rescues, hypothermia cases, reluctant evacuees, blocked roads, destroyed homes, hard-to-reach blazes, and temporary shelters for people and pets.

Elected officials are in that mode this week, regardless of whether they're running this time around. Five days before Election Day, the combined calamities of flooding, wind, fire and blackouts have had the multistate effect of drowning out the season's usual drumbeat of campaign rhetoric, attack ads and upbeat promises.

Beyond commanding the public conversation, the superstorm Sandy disaster has several local election board officials worried how well they can conduct an election under conditions expected to fall far short of normal when the polls open Tuesday.

In Nassau, for example, 68 designated polling places fall within hard-hit flood zones -- as do 65 in New York City locations such as Coney Island and the Rockaways. Damage to polling sites will need to be assessed, to determine if they can be opened, or must be relocated, election officials said. Given the widespread destruction, many places may not have electricity yet.

Also, the usual full deployment of police officers for election duty may clash with continuing burdens because of Sandy. In addition, there are questions about public transportation to polling sites, electronic records stored in blacked-out buildings, and still-incomplete training of poll workers, officials said. Election boards around the region were forced to cancel poll-worker training on Monday and Tuesday.

Even as it is overshadowed, however, campaigning will resume, if only with an altered mood -- as it did in New York after Sept. 11, 2001, and in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005.

While President Barack Obama projected his public presence through official crisis statements from the White House, challenger Mitt Romney was none-too-subtly holding a "storm-relief event" in Ohio on the very spot where a campaign rally had been scheduled. And expensive TV commercials will keep running, with the necessary fundraising and time-buys largely done in advance.

Longer-term, big public-policy questions flow from Sandy's devastation. The public clash between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford over evacuation orders touches a nerve regionwide about why some people were inclined to defy authorities' directions to leave their homes.

There is also the matter of climate trends and preparation, broached by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in news interviews this week. He spoke of "the new reality" in which downstate New York, unaccustomed to coastal flooding, now experiences it -- and the challenge of rebuilding to adapt.

Shorter-term, Michael Tobman, a consultant for several area campaigns, said of Tuesday's election: "Safety is first and foremost. If you are . . . running for office, and you have reason to be speaking to neighbors about public safety issues, the time is not entirely lost. But this literally is an act of God."

He added, "We're sitting tight and making sure the mail gets out, staying on top of the printers, maybe recalibrating from retail campaigning to robocalls and e-mail blasts. That's the best you can do."


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