WASHINGTON, D.C. — I’m glad I voted on Sunday.
Hurricane Sandy, a monster storm that is hammering the D.C. region with heavy rain and 90-mile-an-hour winds, forced the cancellation of early voting in D.C. and Maryland on Monday and Tuesday.
“This is a serious, killer storm,” Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D) said in news conference.
Airlines canceled more than 5,000 flights and Amtrak began suspending train service across the Northeast. New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore moved to shut down their subways, buses and trains while schools were closed on Monday. All non-essential government offices also closed in the nation’s capital as millions of residents on the East Coast could be without power for days.
Seven days before Election Day, President Barack Obama made the right decision by canceling a planned campaign appearance in Florida Sunday and returning to Washington to oversee the federal government’s response to Hurricane Sandy.
Obama declared emergencies in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, authorizing federal relief work to begin well ahead of time. He promised the government would “respond big and respond fast” after the storm hits.
The president immediately took charge in the thick of a potential catastrophe. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Cristie, a loyal Republican, praised Obama for his leadership as Hurricane Sandy pounded the East Coast.
“My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape,” Obama said. “We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules.”
2.2 million people are without power in 11 states and DC. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of more than 370,000 people in low-lying communities from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Battery Park City in Manhattan.
Here in the D.C. area, on Sunday afternoon in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, I stood in line for about an hour to cast my vote in the presidential election. When I left the polling place, a Democratic stronghold, the line of voters had stretched several blocks and snaked around corners. I overheard several people chatting about taking advantage of voting early to get ahead of Hurricane Sandy.
But now, millions of Americans from North Carolina to Boston may not be able to vote early as planned because polling places are closed as a result of the storm.
How will the suspension of early voting impact the election?
Nobody knows for sure, but a key strategy for the Obama campaign has been to urge Americans to vote early – and it seems to be working. Jeremy Bird, the Obama campaign’s national field director, said all public polling shows that the president has a double-digit lead among those who have voted.
What we do know is this: Hurricane Sandy not only forced Obama to cancel his campaign appearance in Florida, but it also unexpectedly propelled him into a presidential leadership role in a time of national crisis.
“One of the biggest storms of our lifetimes is unfolding right now,” said the anchor Kelly Cass as The Weather Channel started its fourth day of nonstop coverage.
During the next few days from the White House, Obama will have to lead residents through this storm, provide comfort for those in need, offer prayers for people who may suffer injuries, and give compassion to citizens without power.
When asked about the hurricane’s effect on the Nov. 6 presidential election, Obama said American citizens come first.
“I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” Obama told reporters at the White House Monday. “I’m worried about the impact on families, and I’m worried about the impact on our first responders. I’m worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation.”
“The election will take care of itself next week,” the president added. “Right now, our number-one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives, that our search-and-rescue teams are going to be in place, that people are going to get the food, the water, the shelter that they need in case of emergency, and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track.”
Inside the church sanctuary on Sunday, while praying silently and holding hands with my wife, Melanie, we reflected on what’s truly important in life: family and friends.
And with Obama and Mitt Romney each raising a staggering $1 billion for their campaigns and with attack ads inundating battleground states, suddenly, if only for a moment, politics was put on hold Monday as millions of Americans on the East Coast collectively hunkered down and prepared to ride out a massive storm that won’t soon be forgotten.