New York: The lower Manhattan skyline lit up early Saturday morning for the first time since superstorm Sandy slammed into the US north-east, while thousands of storm victims in New Jersey and elsewhere remained in the dark and awaiting disaster relief.
The power restoration came as gasoline supplies headed to coastal zones devastated by the record storm surge and to motorists whose patience has been tested by gasoline rationing during the painstaking effort to rebuild.
With the US presidential election just three days away, about three million homes and businesses remained without power in a region choked with storm debris and long gas lines reminiscent of the 1970s-era US fuel shortage. Angry storm victims wondered when their lives would return to normal.
President Barack Obama won early praise for the federal response to Sandy, which hammered the US north-east coast on Monday with 80 mile/hour (130 km/hour) winds and a record surge of seawater that swamped homes in New Jersey and flooded streets and subway tunnels in New York City.
But continued television and newspaper images of upset storm victims could hurt the Democrat, who is locked in a virtual draw with Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The US death toll hit 102 on Friday, after Sandy killed 69 people as a hurricane in the Caribbean. It struck the New Jersey coast on Monday as a rare hybrid after the hurricane merged with a powerful storm system in the north Atlantic.
Power utility Consolidated Edison (Con Ed), battling what it called the worst natural disaster in the company’s 180-year history, restored electricity to neighbourhoods such as Wall Street, Chinatown and Greenwich Village in the pre-dawn hours, leaving 11,000 customers in Manhattan without service.
“There’s enough light and activity to get a lot of people on the street and get rid of that movie set look as if were in some kind of ghost town or horror movie,” Con Ed spokesman Bob McGee told NY1 television.
In New Jersey, the utility PSE&G said 612,000 customers were still without lights after power to one million had been restored.
Con Ed said it had restored power to 70% of the 916,000 customers in the New York City area who were cut off. The company was still busy assisting tens of thousands more without power in New York City’s outer boroughs, where some people complained of being ignored.
“We have nobody down here with video coverage,” said Grace Lane, a grandmother who defied evacuation orders and rode out the storm in her second-story bedroom as water rushed through the first floor of her house.
Eight people—Lane, her husband, their two daughters, their husbands and her two grandchildren—were sleeping on air mattresses on the floor of the upstairs bedroom, the last usable room in the house.
“At least my children are OK,” she said.
Many houses were gutted by 5ft (1.5m) of floodwater that raced through Broad Channel, where residents hauled broken furniture and soggy belongings out of their homes on Friday.
In a sign of security worries in the neighbourhood, one garage full of debris stood open with a sign next to it reading: “LOOTERS WILL BE CRUCIFIED - GOD HELP YOU.”
Fuel on the way
Moving to ease fuel shortages, the Obama administration directed the purchase of up to 12 million gallons (45 million litres) of unleaded fuel and 10 million gallons of diesel, to be trucked to New York and New Jersey for distribution.
The government announced it would tap strategic reserves for diesel for emergency responders and waived rules that barred foreign-flagged ships from taking gas, diesel and other products from the Gulf of Mexico to north-east ports.
The moves could help to quell anger triggered by growing lines—some of them miles long—at gas stations. Less than half of the stations in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey were operating on Friday.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie ordered gas rationing in 12 counties to begin on Saturday under an “odd-even” system in which motorists with license plates ending in odd numbers would be able to buy gas on odd-numbered days.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg also moved to tamp down rising anger in the most populous US city by dropping plans to hold the city’s annual marathon. The city had been expecting more than 40,000 runners in Sunday’s event.
Obama, who is back on the campaign trail after touring the disaster zone this week, planned to meet on Saturday morning with homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Craig Fugate and others to discuss the storm response.
After the meeting, federal officials will travel to hard-hit areas including Manhattan, Breezy Point, Brooklyn, Long Island, Staten Island and cities in New Jersey to review response efforts.
Disaster modelling company Eqecat estimated Sandy caused up to $20 billion in insured losses and $50 billion in economic losses.
At the high end of the range, it would rank as the fourth costliest US catastrophe, behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 11 September 2001 attacks and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, according to the Insurance Information Institute.