WANTAGH, N.Y. — Sandy’s U.S. death toll reached 88 on Thursday after the bodies of two young boys were found in a Staten Island marsh, and the economic loss rose to an estimated $50 billion. That would make the storm the second-costliest in American history, after Hurricane Katrina.
On day four, it was as if the Northeast had removed a bandage — in some areas, healing was evident; in others, the wounds remained severe, and despair set in.
Airports and subways reopened and electricity had been restored to nearly half of the 8.5 million homes and businesses that lost power during the storm. Authorities said they expected to return power Saturday to Lower Manhattan, where a quarter of a million people remained in the dark and businesses were shuttered. Evacuation orders were lifted from some beach communities.
But progress was paralyzed in some areas by a new development — gas shortages.
“It’s like gold,” said Billy O’Mahoney, service manager at the Wantagh Car Care Center in Wantagh, inland from shore communities of Long Island that were hammered by Sandy.
Tanks at many petroleum terminals were allowed to run dry before the storm landed to prevent a public health disaster. Now officials are struggling to refill them.
Refineries, pipelines and gas stations across the region have been disrupted by power outages and storm damage. Terminals for gas imports remained shuttered and two major ports for gasoline were closed — Arthur Kill, a waterway between New Jersey and Staten Island; and Bayonne, N.J. Even when ports and terminals are stabilized, debris floating in waterways could keep tankers from getting in, authorities said.
“My supplier says it will be two or three days until we get gas,” O’Mahoney said.
Gas isn’t just about getting people to work or running generators in unpowered homes. Officials noted Thursday that fuel was also needed to run vital infrastructure, including wastewater treatment, drinking water and sanitation facilities.
Outside the Lukoil gas station in Little Falls, N.Y., cars were lined up for nearly two miles and moved at a glacial pace under the watchful eyes of police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
“The things we take for granted,” said Lameese Zaitoun, 38.
Some drivers waited for two hours, only to see pumps run dry when they were nearly to the front of the line. Devin Gilmore, 20, waited an hour and a half but couldn’t get gas; he was running on fumes. He would have been better off saving the gas he had and not leaving his home to search for more, he said.
Another customer, 39-year-old Veronica Rausch, offered Gilmore some of the gas from her SUV, but they could not figure out how to siphon it. A gas station worker tried sucking on a length of hose, but began to gag on the fumes. Even as the drama played out, another attendant began to write a large sign for the pumps: “No gas.”
“Everybody is in panic mode,” said Venus Bennett, 37, as she waited on her lawn for her husband, Chris, to come home with enough gas to attend a relative’s funeral. The line at her local station was half a mile long. The good will that was generated after the storm seems to be petering out, she said. “A few fights almost broke out. This is scary.”
In New Jersey on Thursday, Gov. Chris Christie began lifting evacuation orders in some barrier island communities, but not all. Atlantic City, just north of where the storm came ashore, remained evacuated, and even those towns where the orders were lifted remained under a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew. Christie also deployed state troopers to the coast to ensure safety and security.
In Hoboken, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan, floodwater began to recede, but the city of 50,000 remained staggered by the storm. In an interview, Mayor Dawn Zimmer said half of the city had flooded, including two electrical substations, the bus depot, the wastewater treatment system and three of the four fire stations.
“Our city was overtaken by the Hudson River. It’s really historic and it has been devastating,” she said.
National Guard troops have been rescuing stranded residents from their homes.
Apolinar “Apollo” Ramirez, 82, did not want to leave his apartment in the Marion Towers senior housing complex to stay in a shelter with strangers, but his son intervened. Angel Ramirez said he hadn’t been able to reach his father after the storm, so the National Guard drove him across town through waist-high water.
Ramirez persuaded his father to stay at a shelter in a nearby church, noting that the generator powering his father’s high-rise complex was in danger of running out of gas.
“They said if they didn’t get more fuel today or tomorrow, the generator would go,” the son said. “I guess we underestimated the strength of the storm.”
In Maryland — largely forgotten in the hubbub that followed the storm — National Guard troops were going door to door to check on residents after some communities received 3 feet of snow, leaving roads blocked.
“We’re used to snow, but we’ve never had anything like this,” said R. Lamont “Monty” Pagenhardt, Garrett County administrator. “It’s really bad.”
In New York, the airports — many of which had flooded — reopened. The first flight into Kennedy International was a Federal Emergency Management Agency plane. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the National Guard and FEMA would distribute a million meals in Lower Manhattan and in hard-hit neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, including the spit of land where more than 100 homes were destroyed in the storm.
But progress was halting. Virtually none of New York’s vital transit system was running at full capacity. Car traffic to enter Manhattan on bridges was backed up for miles. Passengers rushed the doors of buses headed for Manhattan from Brooklyn. The subway, which takes more than 5 million people to and from work every day, was still inoperable in Lower Manhattan.
The death toll on Staten Island alone reached at least 19 on Thursday, including Connor Moore, 4, and his brother Brandon, 2. The boys died after they left home with their mother to get to a shelter, only to be overtaken by tidal surge.
President Obama, less than a week before the presidential election, returned to the campaign trail for the first time in four days and said the nation had been “humbled by nature’s destructive power.” The president said the storm had served as a reminder that some events can span political divides, even in a polarized era.
“Leaders of different parties working to fix what’s broken, neighbors helping neighbors cope with tragedy, communities rallying to rebuild — a spirit that says, in the end, we’re all in this together,” Obama said. “We rise or fall as one nation, as one people.”
But politics continued to trail in the storm’s wake. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who pointedly declined to endorse a candidate in the last presidential election, endorsed Obama on Thursday. He cited what he viewed as Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping on important issues such as abortion rights and healthcare. But much of the endorsement was linked to the storm itself — to evidence that climate change is producing more extreme weather events. “I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics,” Bloomberg said.
Romney, who had muted his criticism of the president in the immediate days after the storm, was back on the attack in Virginia. “We need a president who understands business, and I do,” he said.
Also Thursday, television executives announced that Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Christina Aguilera and others would play at a benefit concert for storm victims.
The special is scheduled to air Friday night on NBC and NBC Universal networks, and will be made available for broadcast elsewhere. Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Aguilera were born within 30 miles of one another, all in communities hit hard by the storm — in Long Branch and Perth Amboy, N.J., and Staten Island, N.Y., respectively.
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Hoboken, Bennett from Levittown, N.Y., and Gold from Los Angeles.
Staff writers Neela Banerjee, Richard Simon, Joseph Serna and Michael Muskal contributed to this report.