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New York (AFP) Nov 5, 2012
Children flocked to reopened schools across New York on Monday for the first time since superstorm Sandy, but colder weather piled on the misery for hundreds of thousands of people still lacking power.
The sight of yellow school buses crisscrossing the Big Apple marked a major step back to normality for a city that suffered unprecedented damage from the hurricane-strength storm, which struck a week ago.
About one million children were back at their desks, with only 101 schools out of 1,700 still shut due to storm damage or because they were being used as emergency shelters. Many of those were to open in new locations on Wednesday.
Monday's commute tested the recovering transit system to the maximum, with some passengers crammed into buses and trains, or walking down Manhattan sidewalks punctuated with growing piles of uncollected garbage.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the buses and subway trains in New York, said the system was up to 80 percent capacity.
Buses in neighboring New Jersey were up to 90 percent, but the major commuter rail link across the Hudson River to Manhattan remained shut.
With public transport still limited, more people than usual relied on cars -- if they could find fuel. Despite improvements in restoring supplies, filling the tank remained a nightmare, with huge lines and rationing in New Jersey.
"I waited eight hours at the station to finally get 30 dollars of gas, which was the limit," yellow cab driver Sherif Roby said in New York. "Many of my friends have been unable to work because they can't find gas."
Restoration of electricity continued apace, but that was little comfort to the remaining 1.4 million people who have already spent a week without light, and often heat, and still likely to faced at least several days more.
The US Department of Energy said that 779,779 homes and businesses in New Jersey were in the dark, a fifth of all customers, while New York state had another 487,952 outages, six percent of the total.
Con Edison, the main power company for New York City, said 80 percent of its customers had their electricity restored, while New Jersey's PSEG utility said it expected that its last repairs would be complete by Friday.
Another immediate challenge was Tuesday's presidential election.
In the worst-hit neighborhoods 59 New York polling stations were listed as closed, and voters were instructed to go to alternative sites, while in New Jersey, authorities were allowing limited numbers to cast votes by email or fax.
"Up to the minute changes are happening across the city," J. C. Polanco, president of the New York City Board of Elections, said on NY1 television.
The bigger problem looming for people left homeless, or with damaged homes, was the impending winter and, more immediately, a strong gale forecasted for Wednesday.
Nighttime temperatures were close to freezing this week and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 homes in the city alone had been left unusable by the October 29 storm.
"It is starting to get cold, people are in homes that are uninhabitable," New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo said. "We are going to have tens of thousands of people who need housing solutions right away."
"This is going to be a massive, massive housing problem," the governor said.
Sandy, which began as a deadly hurricane in the Caribbean, pummeled 15 US states and prompted a huge tidal surge that killed at least 109 people in the United States and Canada and caused tens of billions of dollars worth of damage.
A high-level government delegation, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, was due to tour the region Monday.
Cold, lack of fuel threaten New York recovery
But on the bright side, power was restored to nearly all of Manhattan Saturday after flooding plunged the lower half of New York's most densely populated borough and famous skyline into darkness.
Manhattan will no longer resemble "some sort of ghost town or horror movie," said Bob McGee, a spokesman for utility company Con Edison.
Crews were also working to restore supplies to schools, set to reopen Monday, and to polling places for Tuesday's presidential election.
However, 40 percent of those who lost power, or somewhere under 900,000 people, continued to experience widespread outages that could last for as long as another week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters.
For many, that meant no heating just as temperatures are dropping in the New York area, with a windy, rainy autumn storm forecast for Wednesday.
On Long Island, 550,000 people are without power, down from 1.2 million people initially, Cuomo said.
Overall, 2.5 million customers remain without power across seven states that were in Sandy's path, the US Department of Energy said.
As New Jersey police raised the state's death toll to 22, increasing the overall US total to at least 109, the biggest hurdle to recovery continued to be a severe lack of gasoline.
Huge lines of cars and people on foot clutching canisters snaked back from gas stations, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced rationing.
Starting Saturday, drivers with license plates ending in an even number were only allowed to fill up on even-numbered dates, while those whose plates end in odd numbers had to wait for odd-numbered dates.
Meanwhile, New York officials announced the deployment of military fuel trucks offering 10 gallons (38 liters) of gasoline to drivers free of charge.
Cuomo said the critical situation should ease rapidly since delays in the arrival of fuel ships had been remedied.
"Eight million gallons of fuel have been delivered," he said. "Twenty-eight million gallons will be delivered over the next two days, so you will see quickly an abatement of the pressure on the fuel system."
"You don't have to panic," he added.
New figures from the federal Energy Information Administration said that 38 percent of gas stations around New York were still out of order, sharply down from 67 percent on Friday.
Relief was slower than hoped for drivers, who were told to stay away from makeshift fuel stations on the first day of the scheme to give priority to emergency vehicles. At one site in the Bronx, the promised fuel tanker had not arrived by late afternoon, according to an AFP correspondent.
But in a piece of good news, the New York subway system was 80-percent up and running. The transit authority ended the suspension of fares that had allowed New Yorkers to ride free during the calamity's immediate aftermath.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also announced that one million school children would be back in class Monday, although there were 65 schools out of service due to damage or because they were being used as temporary shelters.
The military said it had given emergency officials one million meals to distribute to the needy in New York and New Jersey, and would bring a further million next week.
But frustrations were increasingly boiling over in the worst-hit neighborhoods.
On a visit to the far-flung community of Rockaway Beach, which was severely flooded, Bloomberg got an earful from angry residents.
"When are we going to get some help?" a woman yelled at him repeatedly before being ushered away by police.
Later, the mayor urged patience, telling reporters there were "many people who are worried, and frustrated, and cold."
In a bid to lift spirits, a New York Police Department spokesman said that statistics showed crime was actually down by 35 percent since the storm, compared with the same period in 2011.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, who is on the home stretch of his election campaign, spoke from Air Force One with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to discuss the area's recovery needs, the White House announced.
"In each call, the president made clear that his team remained focused on continuing to mobilize all available resources to support state and local partners, and that he had directed his team to continue to identify and remove any barriers that could slow the deployment of important assets," said a White House official.
Wednesday's bad weather was not expected to approach the severity of Sandy, but will still be miserable for people living inalready damp and unheated houses.
The Red Cross said Saturday it was accelerating efforts to set up enough warming shelters in time.
"Red Cross's operational priorities right now are logistics, feeding and preparing for the pending storm," Red Cross official Charley Shimanski told a news conference.
Throughout the region, "we're working closely with emergency operations centers to stand up warming facilities, warming shelters, and stocking those with additional blankets, pillows and everything needed to make sure to take care of folks after the storm," Shimanski said.
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