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Commuter Delays Rage as NYC Begins Bounce Back From Sandy

Commuters Hunt for Gasoline, Access as They Try to Reach NYC
Commuters wait to board a bus headed for the Queens borough in New York on Oct. 31, 2012. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Miles-long traffic jams, gasoline shortages and blackouts that may last for weeks defined the challenges facing New York City and New Jersey as the region struggles back to its feet after the chaos triggered by superstorm Sandy.

The Pentagon is flying 17 planes carrying more than 600 tons of power-restoration equipment, vehicles and workers from Southern California to help New Jersey and neighboring states with recovery efforts. National Guardsmen doled out food and water from distribution centers, and the utility Consolidated Edison Inc. gave dry ice to people with powerless refrigerators.

“There are people making the transition from shock to the real world of how you get food and so forth, and we will do all we can to help them,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today at a Manhattan news briefing. He assured residents that the city’s water was safe to drink.

Sandy, the largest tropical system measured in the Atlantic, struck Oct. 29, killing at least 75 people in the U.S., flooding subway tunnels and knocking out power to as many as 8.5 million homes and businesses along the East Coast, including about half of New Jersey. About 4.8 million customers remained without power today, from South Carolina to Maine and as far west as Michigan.

Swept Away

Before striking the U.S., Sandy was blamed for as many as 65 deaths in the Caribbean on its path north. At least 38 people died in New York, including two Staten Island boys, ages 2 and 4, who were found in a marsh after they were swept away from their mother and went missing.

In New Jersey, which suffered catastrophic damage from Cape May to Bergen County, Governor Chris Christie said 25 percent of New Jersey Transit rail cars were damaged. Trains remained suspended while 80 percent of buses were back in service, he told reporters today in Moonachie. All buses should be back running Nov. 5, the governor said.

Along the coast, at least two fuel spills, one diesel and one biodiesel, were reported after Sandy damaged storage tanks. Both have been contained.

Eqecat Inc., a provider of catastrophic risk models, doubled its economic-damage estimates to as much as $50 billion, with about $10 billion to $20 billion of insured losses.

Taking Shelter

More than 9,000 people are using shelters in the region, a number expected to rise as people return to their homes and find them flooded, said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More than $1 million has been distributed to Sandy’s victims for housing assistance, a number also expected to increase, he said.

Most temporary housing will probably be provided in hotels and motels, not trailers, Fugate told reporters on a conference call today. Storm victims lingering in trailer parks became a symbol of FEMA’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Help is coming from across North America to aid in disaster relief. About 300 Marines and sailors are coming from North Carolina, capable of providing generators, fuel, clean water and helicopters. Red Cross units from Canada and Mexico were called on.

Restoring Power

Officials urged patience as services began to bounce back.

In New York, mass transit should be mostly restored in the coming days and by Nov. 5, most gasoline shortages should be alleviated, Bloomberg said. Con Ed said it expects to restore power to the “vast majority” of its affected customers by Nov. 11, with all of its underground networks in Manhattan back online by Nov. 3, said Sara Banda, a spokeswoman for the New York-based utility.

The storm would have been more costly and harder to recover from if the city didn’t take the steps it did, such as halting mass transit even before local weather worsened.

“If you take precautions, you can benefit from them,” said the mayor, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. Most parks will reopen Nov. 3, public-school students will return to classrooms next week and officials have already lifted a ban on exterior construction work, he said.

Ground transportation remained hobbled. Limited, free service on 14 of 23 subway lines resumed today, along with travel on buses and Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road commuter trains. Still, subways can’t run between 34th Street in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn until power is restored and tunnels are cleared of water. New Jersey Transit trains will resume partial service tomorrow. PATH trains remain out of service.

No Parking

Like hotels, every lot and garage in Midtown was full, said Steve Warshauer, executive vice president for the East division of Chicago-based Standard Parking Corp., which operates about 435 garages in the city.

“The issue is gridlock,” Warshauer said by telephone. The company’s garages below 28th street don’t have power and were closed, he said.

National Guard and police are allowing taxi drivers to purchase $20 of gas per customer, according to Youssef Aly, 29, a driver who lives in Manhattan.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota said the agency is awaiting the arrival of Army super-pumps to remove 43 million gallons from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and pump out flooded subway tunnels under the East River.

Commuters Improvise

Commuters continued improvising for the evening commute after arriving at work today by foot, bike, bus or car.

This morning, at Jay Street-MetroTech in Brooklyn, the line to board buses to cross the river was blocks long and three people deep. More than a dozen cyclists crowded a nearby intersection. Hundreds of straphangers had arrived before 6 a.m. a few blocks away at the Barclays Center, another pick-up spot.

A requirement of at least three occupants in noncommercial vehicles was in effect on most crossings into Manhattan until midnight. It seemed to be working on the morning commute, as car lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge were cleared of the gridlock clogging them last night.

In New Jersey, drivers waited in two-mile-long lines to buy gasoline after the storm flooded fuel terminals, curbed deliveries and left many filling stations in the dark and unable to run pumps.

“What else am I going to do?” said Mina Shafek, 26, after he waited more than an hour at one of the few open gas stations in North Brunswick. “I have no choice.”

There were more than a dozen vehicles ahead of his, and a line of more than 80 cars waited along the shoulder of the highway.

Air Travel

Air travelers fared better, as flights at LaGuardia Airport resumed today, following abbreviated operations at John F. Kennedy International and Newark Liberty yesterday.

In Manhattan, an unofficial line divided the haves with power from the have-nots. South of about 34th Street, open shops and restaurants were sparse and even traffic lights remained dark. Hundreds from the affected area poured into Midtown bars and friends’ apartments looking for light, WiFi connections, food and flushable toilets.

In stark comparison to downtown, where cyclists had wide boulevard to themselves, Park and Lexington avenues were as normal as New York streets can be. Fur-clad women pushed past runners and construction workers swept up leaves around a work site. Le Pain Quotidien, a bakery and restaurant that offers a version of homey Belgian cuisine, bustled.

Download: Napolitano, LaHood Speak About Sandy's Aftermath

Download: Con Ed Update on New York Power Restoration Efforts

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