U.S. disaster relief in a race against freezing cold

NEW YORK Sat Nov 3, 2012 7:40pm EDT

1 of 14. Hurricane Sandy damaged areas are seen along Rt 35 in Bayhead, New Jersey, November 2, 2012 in this handout image courtesy of the governor's office. Picture taken November 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/New Jersey Governor's Office/Tim Larsen/Handout

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fuel supplies headed toward disaster zones in the U.S. Northeast on Saturday and a million customers regained electricity as near freezing temperatures 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 percent of the New York City subway service to resume, but more than a 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 unseasonably frigid weather sets in. Forecasters saw temperatures dipping into the upper 30s Fahrenheit (around 3 degrees Celsius) on Saturday night with freezing temperatures expected next week.

In Staten Island, the New York City borough whose half a million residents bore the brunt of Sandy, people tried to stay warm.

Tom Clark, 43, and family members were burning wood in a steel drum on their front yard. Clark said the family and their dogs planned to go stay at his mother-in-law's heated house.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano visited Staten Island on Friday amid assertions by some angry residents that they had been ignored by emergency relief workers.

The weather forecast remains bleak. An aggressive early-season "Nor'easter" storm was expected to hit the battered New England coast next week with strong winds and heavy rain.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Saturday urged those without power and heat - especially the elderly and other vulnerable groups - to head to shelters where they could keep warm and receive food.

"Right now it's starting to really get cold," he said.

In New York and New Jersey, more than 18,000 people remained in shelters, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said.

BLOOMBERG CRITICIZES UTILITY

"There's no heating oil around," said Vincent Savino, the president of Statewide Oil and Heating, which usually supplies 2,000 buildings across New York City. "I don't know how much fuel we have left: maybe a day or two."

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 on Saturday, raising the total in that state to 22. Bloomberg put the New York City death toll at 41.

Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean before turning north and hammering the U.S. Eastern Seaboard on Monday with 80 mile-per-hour (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.

Bloomberg praised utility Consolidated Edison for making "significant progress" in restoring power to customers, but warned New Yorkers that it would be days before everyone had electricity again and fuel shortages ended.

But he had sharp words for the Long Island Power Authority, LIPA, which he said "has not acted aggressively enough" in its power restoration efforts, above all in the Rockaways, a beachfront community in the borough of Queens.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered rationing that allows only half of all cars to buy gasoline each day.

"I was there (at the Jersey Shore) yesterday and I will tell you, it looked like we had been bombed," Christie said "There are homes in Bay Head on the beach that had been driven by the storm surge into the houses across the street."

Obama won praise for the federal storm response but the devastation was so widespread that angry storm victims continued to appear on television days after landfall. The storm damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and displaced voters, forcing election officials to improvise at early polling stations.

Christie ordered county clerks in New Jersey to open on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate early voters and ensure a "full, fair and transparent open voting process."

Tight gasoline supplies have tested the patience of drivers - fistfights have broken out in mile-long lines of cars - but a reopened New York Harbor meant fuel was reaching terminals.

To alleviate 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, with much more expected this weekend, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

RUNNING ON EMPTY

Cuomo also announced the Defense Department would set up five mobile gas stations in the metropolitan area, providing people with up to 10 gallons of free gas. The New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs later said emergency personnel and first responder vehicles would have priority.

At least 1,000 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.

Bloomberg said the fuel shortages would be easing soon.

According to the U.S. Energy Informational Administration the number of dry stations in the New York metropolitan area plunged to 38 percent on Saturday from 67 percent on Friday. The U.S. Department of Energy confirmed on Saturday that most filling stations in the metro area had fuel.

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

People are also worried about crime. In one hard-hit Queens neighborhood, a garage full of debris stood open with a sign next to it reading: "LOOTERS WILL BE CRUCIFIED - GOD HELP YOU."

Obama visited FEMA headquarters in Washington for a briefing before heading to the Midwest on Saturday for a final weekend of campaigning. He told officials to cut through government "red tape" to help storm-hit areas.

The Obama administration directed the purchase of up to 12 million gallons (45 million liters) of unleaded fuel and 10 million gallons of diesel, to be trucked to New York and New Jersey.

The government also waived rules that barred foreign-flagged ships from taking gasoline, diesel and other products from the Gulf of Mexico to Northeast ports.

Consolidated Edison, battling what it called the worst natural disaster in the company's 180-year history, restored electricity to many Manhattan neighborhoods, though some 11,000 customers on the island were without service.

The company said 270,000 customers in New York City and Westchester County still had no power, down from nearly a million who were cut off by the storm.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus throughout the U.S. Northeast; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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