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NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City began rationing gasoline on Friday for the first time since the energy shortages of the 1970s, seeking to ease a fuel crisis brought on by Superstorm Sandy.
The former hurricane hammered the U.S. East Coast on October 29, killing at least 120 people and causing an estimated $50 billion in damage or economic losses.
It also disrupted the fuel supply chain, creating hours-long waits for gasoline that led officials first in New Jersey and now New York City and Long Island to impose rationing. Cars with odd- and even-numbered license plates will be able to buy gas and diesel fuel on alternate days.
"This is worse than the oil crises of the 1970s," said Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops. "Back then there was just a perceived shortage of supply in New York, when there was plenty of gasoline around. Now we're having real distribution problems."
The long lines at the pump have added to the frustration of commuters, who must choose between driving and enduring seemingly interminable waits for buses and trains with parts of the transportation network still damaged.
In addition, some 434,000 homes and businesses in the Northeast lacked power as of Friday afternoon, creating more misery for the thousands forced to flee their storm-damaged homes or for those who have hunkered down in the dark with freezing overnight temperatures.
Protesters took to the streets in the Long Island town of Oceanside on Friday, chanting, "Where is LIPA? Where is LIPA?" referring to the Long Island Power Authority, a state-owned utility.
A snowstorm blasted the region on Wednesday, knocking out power to some homes just as they were getting back on the grid after Sandy. Warmer and sunny weather was forecast for the weekend, providing some relief to disaster victims.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at first resisted gas rationing, saying fuel supplies should return to normal once New York Harbor reopened after the storm and tankers started sailing again.
But many gasoline terminals - which transfer fuel from tankers at sea to trucks on land - sustained damage from the storm that created a record surge of seawater and flooded low-lying areas.
Because of long lines at terminals, gasoline trucks were only able to make two trips on Friday, when normally they would make six, Bombardiere said. The odd-even rationing "should help cut down on panic buying," he said.
But despite the new measure, long lines at gas pumps in New York City and Long Island continued on Friday. Some 28 percent of gas stations in the New York metropolitan area did not have fuel available for sale on Thursday, down from 38 percent on Wednesday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.
Gas lines were considerably shorter in New Jersey, and Governor Chris Christie said he expected power to be restored to 100 percent of the state by Saturday night.
But Christie, who toured the New Jersey shore on Friday, said the rebuilding effort for vacation towns would be "long, expensive and hard," and said it would not be completed in time for next summer. "This is our Katrina," he declared.
In the Rockaways, a hard-hit area of Long Island, New York, a group of military veterans known as Team Rubicon helped residents shovel sand away from their homes, remove rotted drywall from basements and haul large items to the sidewalk.
At the sidewalk, New York sanitation officials used huge tractors to scoop the debris into dump trucks and hauled it away.
Peter Meijer, a Team Rubicon member who just returned from a trip helping refugees in South Sudan, said the work was gratifying. "This is more satisfying than even my time in the military."
A week after Sandy, Doctors Without Borders established temporary emergency clinics in the hard-hit Rockaways - a barrier island in Queens facing the Atlantic Ocean - to tend to residents of high-rises who still lacked power and heat and were left isolated by the storm.
"A lot of us have said it feels a lot like being in the field in a foreign country," said Manhattan doctor Lucy Doyle, who has worked for the medical relief organization in Africa.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was providing mobile homes to people displaced by the storm, a reminder of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast seven years ago. Some evacuees would be housed nearly 200 miles from home, FEMA said, because there was little available space closer to the city.
Manhattan stores and restaurants have yet to recover. Some are awaiting emergency loans, while others are trying to make it on their own.
"We don't have the product to sell," said Zach Mack, a co-owner of the ABC Beer Co, which flooded last week, knocking out electricity for days. "And we don't have the people to sell it to." [ID:nL1E8M97UE]
Additional reporting by Edith Honan, Peter Rudegeair and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Eric Walsh