A version of this piece was published in The Brooklyn Spectator on Wednesday, November 7th, 2012.
More than a week after Hurricane Sandy touched down, Red Hook Houses resident Ulyses Bermudez was still in the dark.
There is no electricity or heat in his building so he wears layers of sweaters to stay warm, and he gets food from the Salvation Army and New York Cares volunteers stationed in nearby Coffey Park. The food in his warm fridge has already spoiled.
But on Tuesday he set his worries aside for a little while, because it’s Election Day, and he had to help re-elect President Barack Obama.
P.S. 27 in Red Hook was not immune to long lines at the polls, despite many residents still being displaced from their homes, which have no power and heat.
Bermudez represents many residents in the New York City Housing Association’s (NYCHA) Red Hook Houses that still don’t have power, heat or hot water more than a week after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, but made sure voting to re-elect the president was a top priority on Tuesday’s Election Day and planned to use various methods to get word of the results.
“In a little while I’ll be going over there to do what I got to do,” Bermudez said at about 9:30 a.m. before going to the polling station three blocks away at P.S. 27. Bermudez, who has been living in Red Hook for 57 years, absolutely dislikes the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“Romney is the kind of guy who said he has plans. But what are his plans, we don’t know nothing,” Bermudez said. “He’s making $20 million a year and he’s only getting taxed 13 percent. And the poor continuously stay poor. You know, like we don’t exist.”
To make it easier for residents who had difficulty traveling to their designated polling stations, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared on Monday that displaced New Yorkers could vote at any polling site in the state.
Red Hook citizens had easy access to P.S. 27 and they felt the onus was on them to get out and exercise their democratic right no matter their circumstances.
“You can’t really change Election Day,” said Red Hook Houses resident Takwan Cates, who voted early in the morning. “People still going over there to vote and that’s what’s important.”
Zenobia Lassiter traveled back from her daughter’s house in Woodlawn, Queens, where she had gone during mandatory evacuation. “It made me feel very good and in the 15 minutes it took for me to vote, I saw four wheelchairs of people with oxygen tanks in line, determined to vote,” said Lassiter.
Volunteers from the Salvation Army, New York Cares, and elsewhere distribute been handing out blankets and quilts, bottled water, food and toiletries, including diapers and toothpaste daily in Coffey Park.
The Red Hook Houses have been without power since Monday and it was unclear when the power may return.
“Over the next two or three days our goal is to restore electricity to nearly all developments where it’s feasible, and to restore heat and hot water to about two-thirds of all developments that currently are without them,” Sheila Stainback, a representative from NYCHA, wrote in an email.
Stainback explained the agency didn’t have an estimation of Red Hook Houses residents affected at the moment, because the numbers were changing hourly, but she said the housing authority has 114 buildings and 21,000 people without power citywide.
To help those in need the Salvation Army and New York Cares volunteers had been handing out blankets and quilts, bottled water, food and toiletries, including diapers and toothpaste every day since last Wednesday from noon to 4 p.m. in Coffey Park.
“The Salvation Army isn’t focused on politics,” said Cadet Stacei Ferreira, one of the volunteers. “We want them to get out and vote, but we also want them to be warm and well fed. That’s the most important thing.”
Because they lost electricity, residents also lost Internet access after computers and cellphone batteries died.
An AT&T charging station near the Red Hook Houses.
AT&T had set up a generator-powered charging station near the Red Hook Houses on Thursday so residents can charge their phones and laptops. The station is a small, white tent on the sidewalk of Coffee Park with six chairs, and a table with a mass of extension cords and outlets.
It was running from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and a representative at the site said they would continue every day until power was restored or Mayor Michael Bloomberg told them to stop.
“I’m proud that we are actually helping people out here,” said David Silva, an AT&T worker at the charging site.
But since the tent closes at night residents with low cellphone batteries wouldn’t have been able to check the election results. So they were seeking alternative methods to learn who won.
Russell Carter, another resident without power and Obama supporter, who has been using matchsticks to light the burners on his stove for heat and boil water, is determined to walk miles from Red Hook to Bay Ridge to a relative’s place to watch the returns and get some food.
“It’s good exercise,” Carter said.
Henrietta Perkins plans to use a 25-year-old battery-operated handheld radio to listen to the election results inside her freezing apartment.
Another resident, Henrietta Perkins, has a 25-year old green and white handheld radio that runs on AA batteries. Though her son had often told her to throw it away, Perkins, 67, had kept it for sentimental reasons. She planned to listen to the results with it in her freezing apartment.
Perkins said she is fine because she can take hot showers at a cousin’s place and get food from a nearby church. And when she needs heat she lights her stove and lets the flame stay on for hours, sometimes days. To her, voting for Obama was a must.
“Voting is more important, because if I don’t have Obama in office I don’t need this power,” said Perkins. A rectangular Barack Obama button stuck on her jacket read “Si Se Puede.” Without him in the White House, she added, “I might as well just call this Hurricane back again.”