NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City and the sodden Northeast began an arduous journey back to normal on Wednesday after mammoth storm Sandy killed at least 64 people in a rampage that swamped coastal cities and cut power to millions.
Financial markets reopened with the New York Stock Exchange running on generator power after the first weather-related two-day closure since an 1888 blizzard. Packed buses took commuters to work with New York’s subway system halted after seawater flooded its tunnels.
President Barack Obama, who has halted campaigning with the election six days away, set aside political differences with New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie for a helicopter tour of the devastated coast, where they saw flooded and sand-swept neighborhoods and burning homes.
“The entire country’s been watching. Everyone knows how hard Jersey has been hit,” Obama told residents at an evacuation shelter in the town of Brigantine.
“We’re not going to tolerate any red tape. We’re not going to tolerate any bureaucracy,” he said of the relief effort.
Sandy crashed ashore with 80 mile-per-hour (130-kph) winds on Monday as a rare hybrid superstorm after merging with another system. It was the largest storm by area to hit the United States in generations, after killing dozens of people as a hurricane in the Caribbean.
It was likely to rank as one of the costliest storms in U.S. history. One disaster-modeling firm said Sandy may have caused up to $15 billion in insured losses.
About 6 million homes and businesses in 15 U.S. states remained without power on Wednesday, down from a high of nearly 8.5 million, which surpassed the record 8.4 million customers who went dark from last year’s Hurricane Irene.
While markets reopened, floodwaters receded and residents went back to work by car, bicycle and bus in New York, the country’s most populous city suffered some setbacks on Wednesday. Damage forced evacuation of Bellevue Hospital, known for psychiatric and emergency care.
Five hundred patients were being moved, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. Evacuations of four other hospitals and 17 chronic care facilities had already been ordered.
An evacuation order for 375,000 New Yorkers in low-lying areas remained in effect, and with subways down, the mayor said cars must have at least three passengers to enter Manhattan.
Across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey, floodwater that reached chest high on Monday was still knee high on Wednesday morning.
“I thought it was the end. I kept telling my sons to pray and that’s all we did,” said Marcelina Rosario, 47, who was trapped in the second floor of her Hoboken apartment. “Everything happened so fast. The water started coming up, the refrigerator was floating.”
More than half of all the gas stations in New Jersey and Long Island were closed due to power outages and depleted fuel supplies, frustrating attempts to restore normal life, industry officials said.
The New York area’s John F. Kennedy and Newark airports reopened with limited service after thousands of flights were canceled, leaving travelers stuck for days. LaGuardia, a third major airport, was flooded and closed, but was scheduled to reopen on Thursday.
Limited New York subway service was due to return on Thursday, four days after the system, with daily traffic of about 5.5 million people, shut down ahead of the storm. Some commuter rail service was due to come back on line later on Wednesday.
Still, recovery from the massive power failures and mass transit outages was expected to take days or weeks.
“It looks like the pictures of London or even Dresden after World War Two,” New York Senator Charles Schumer said in describing Breezy Point, a New York City area where 111 homes were destroyed by fire.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said more than a dozen people had been charged with theft and looting in connection with the storm for targeting businesses in the badly flooded Far Rockaway neighborhood of the New York City borough.
With six days to go before Tuesday’s presidential election, Obama and Christie put aside politics to tour the devastated New Jersey shore together. Christie, a vocal backer of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, has praised Obama and the federal response to Sandy.
The two men boarded the president’s Marine One helicopter and from the air, around the gambling resort of Atlantic City, saw wrecked piers, swamped beach homes and streets under water.
“If your homes aren’t badly damaged, we can hopefully get you back in,” Obama told residents in a shelter.
Obama was scheduled to resume his campaign on Thursday with visits to battleground states Nevada and Colorado.
The growing U.S. death toll from the storm reached at least 64, with 30 people killed in New York state, nine in Maryland, and six each in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Five other states reported fatalities.
Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean last week.
Remnants of the storm were over Pennsylvania on Wednesday, forecasters said. Winter storm warnings were in effect along the central Appalachian mountains and flood watches and warnings were issued across New England and northern mid-Atlantic states.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the storm may prove to be the most expensive in U.S. history.
“Now we are looking at flooding on Lake Erie, possibly Lake Michigan,” she said. “We’re looking at secondary flooding downstream as rivers fill with the remnants of Sandy and the water has to go somewhere.”
Sunday’s New York Marathon will go on as scheduled, but Wednesday night’s Halloween parade through Greenwich Village and Thursday night’s National Basketball Association season-opening game between the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets have been postponed.
On Broadway, most of the shows that had been canceled since Sunday were due to resume on Wednesday, the Theater League said.
Additional reporting by Michael Erman, Anna Louie Sussman, Atossa Abrahamian, Chris Michaud, John McCrank and Scott DiSavino in New York, Susan Heavey in Washington, Ian Simpson in West Virginia, and Mark Felsenthal in Atlantic City, N.J.; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Jim Loney; Editing by Peter Cooney