US disaster relief in a race against cold snap

JOSEPH AX AND JONATHAN SPICER
Last updated 08:04 04/11/2012

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Fuel supplies headed toward the US Northeast on Saturday and a million customers regained electricity ahead of a coming cold snap that threatened to add to the misery of coastal communities devastated by superstorm Sandy.

The power restorations relit the skyline in lower Manhattan for the first time in nearly a week and allowed 80 per cent of the New York City subway service to resume, but 2.5 million homes and businesses still lacked power, down from 3.5 million on Friday.

The power outages combined with a heating oil shortage meant some homes could go cold as wintry weather sets in. Forecasters saw temperatures dipping to around 3 degrees Celsius on Saturday night with similar low temperatures next week.

"There's no heating oil around," said Vincent Savino, the president of Statewide Oil and Heating, which usually supplies some 2000 buildings across New York City. "I don't know how much fuel we have left: maybe a day or two."

The long, arduous recovery was taxing disaster victims and first responders strained by a week of emergency services.

The post-storm chaos also threatened to jumble Tuesday's election with President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney locked in a tight race.

The storm's death toll rose to at least 110 with nine more deaths reported in New Jersey, raising the total in that state to 22. New York revised its total down by one to 40.

Sandy killed 69 in the Caribbean before turning north and hammering the US northeast coast on Monday with 130-kph winds and a record surge of seawater that swallowed oceanside communities in New Jersey and New York, and flooded streets and subway tunnels in New York City.

Tight gasoline supplies and the resulting rationing have tested the patience of drivers - fist fights have broken out in mile-long lines of cars. But fuel was making its way to terminals after the US Coast Guard reopened New York Harbor to tanker traffic on Friday.

Alleviating one of the country's worst fuel chain disruptions since the energy shortage in the 1970s, some 8 million gallons of gasoline and other petroleum products have been delivered since Friday and another 28 million gallons was to be delivered this weekend, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told a news conference.

Cuomo also announced the Defence Department would set up five mobile gas stations in the metropolitan area, providing people with up to 10 gallons of free gas.

At least 1000 drivers queued up at the Freeport Armory in Long Island, only to be told the gasoline would not arrive for at least eight hours more, one driver said.

"There's just so many people getting very frustrated. People don't know what to do," said Lauren Popkoff, 49, a history teacher who had been in line for four hours.

MARATHON CANCELED

New York City gave its overstretched police a break by abruptly reversing course and canceling Sunday's marathon, a beloved annual race that had become a lightning rod for critics concerned it was a diversion of resources.

"How long can the NYPD go at full throttle like this is the big question," said Gene O'Donnell, a former New York Police Department officer and professor of policing studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "The longer it goes, the more they get stretched."

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Adding to the region's tension are concerns about crime, and the National Guard was called out in some areas to prevent looting.

In one hard-hit Queens neighbourhood, a garage full of debris stood open with a sign next to it reading: "LOOTERS WILL BE CRUCIFIED - GOD HELP YOU."

"Hurricanes can be the stress equivalent of cancer," said David Yusko, assistant clinical director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania.

STARS COME OUT

Music stars offered some diversion from the disaster with a televised benefit concert featuring New Jersey natives Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi and Staten Island-born Christina Aguilera.

"We will not leave anyone behind," said Aguilera, whose native borough accounted for 22 of New York City's 40 deaths from the storm.

Obama won early praise for the federal response to Sandy but faced continual television and newspaper images of upset storm victims.

Before heading to the Midwest for a final weekend of campaigning, Obama visited Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington for a briefing, and told officials to cut through government "red tape" to help storm-ravaged areas.

"There's nothing more important than getting this right," the president said at the beginning of a briefing with officials from FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and state and local governments.

Moving to ease fuel shortages, the Obama administration directed the purchase of up to 12 million gallons 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 gasoline, diesel and other products from the Gulf of Mexico to Northeast ports.

Power utility Consolidated Edison, battling what it called the worst natural disaster in the company's 180-year history, restored electricity to Manhattan neighbourhoods such as Wall Street, Chinatown and Greenwich Village in the pre-dawn hours, leaving 11,000 customers in Manhattan without service.

Con Ed said it had restored power to 70 per cent of the 916,000 customers in the New York City area who were cut off.

- Reuters

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