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N.J. begins gas rationing as region rebounds

NEW YORK -- New Jersey has begun rationing gas, the Department of Defense is delivering gasoline to desperate motorists and millions remained without power across the greater New York area Saturday in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The Department of Energy reported that more than 2.5 million customers remained without power, with Con Edison in New York saying some in Staten Island and Westchester County may have to last another week.

The storm could be one of the costliest in U.S. history. It’s buried inland states in snow, wiped out homes along the Eastern Seaboard and shut down transportation and electricity for millions. The death toll climbed to more than 100 Saturday.

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In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie announced that gasoline will be rationed in similar fashion to the fuel shortage in the early 1980s, when cars with license plates ending in even numbers filled up one day and those ending in odd numbers tanked up on the other.

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“This system will ease the strain on those gas stations still operating, while we work to bring more online for the public to access fuel, in a manner that is fair, easy to understand, and less stressful,” Christie said in a statement.

The governor announced Friday that the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs and attorney general have subpoenaed 65 businesses, including gas stations, accusing them of price-gouging desperate consumers.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said more than 8 million gallons are ready to fill up vehicles, with another 28 million en route to New York’s terminals. Across the region, lines at gas stations can stretch miles, with cars stopped for hours to fill up.

Some New York cabbies have begun to take advantage, residents say.

“There’s absolutely price gouging,” said Steve Marino, an investment banker who works in Midtown. The 24-year-old turned down several cabs who he said were charging about $20 for a ride that would normally cost him $15. Many of the cabbies demanded cash and kept their meters off, Marino said.

“There’s no consequence… There are so many people looking for cabs,” he added.

Still, Marino said he understood the situation to a point. “I don’t blame them. They have to fill up their tank,” he said.

Jenna Dombrowski, a 22-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said she had to shell out $60 to pay for a cab to get from her Brooklyn home to school and her bar hostess job in Midtown. The fare would normally cost about half that, she explained.

“It’s hard for me to pay $60 for a cab, especially if I don’t know if I’d make it back or not,” said Dombrowski, who usually gets around in a bus.

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Earlier in the week, she tried to rent a car, but that wasn’t an option. She called around and found rental rates that were upward $250 for a day.

President Obama directed the Department of Energy on Friday to distribute 2 million gallons of oil reserves to New York and New Jersey, and temporarily waived the Jones Act, allowing foreign-flagged oil tankers to deliver petroleum to New England and Atlantic ports.

On Saturday fuel trucks from the Department of Defense, each hauling up to 5,000 gallons, were deployed around New York to help ease the pressure on gas stations. There is a 10-gallon limit per vehicle.

Though the region is struggling for fuel, power is being restored, slowly, for millions. All nuclear power plants in the Northeast that shut down or dialed back because of Hurricane Sandy have come back online, and about 1 million customers had power turned back on between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

Con Edison – which powers all of Manhattan, Staten Island and Westchester County – said 70% of its customers are back online.

Shouts, hooting and hollering broke out at a bar in lower Manhattan Friday evening when the power finally flickered back on after five days in darkness.

“Yeah!” a man screamed outside the Whiskey Rebel on Lexington Avenue, just south of 29th Street. Others followed the patron outside, rejoicing and pumping their fists toward the sky.

Moments earlier, Thomas Seminara had stepped outside the bar in a failed attempt to find reception for his phone. In front of him, a conga-line of buses slogged down Lexington Avenue, packed with commuters heading south toward boroughs outside Manhattan.

“The buses never run on Lex… You see their faces and they look pretty miserable,” Seminara said of the people on the bus. The bus lights were so bright that Seminara didn’t notice the street lights towering above his head had finally turned on.

Seminara looked up at the illuminated street light on the corner of 29th Avenue and Lexington. “Look at that. We’ve got power,” he said. “Now I can take the elevator instead of walking up the stairs.”

On Saturday, though many areas continued to suffer for essentials such as food and water, the pulse of the region was coming back.

Many of New York’s subways began running Saturday morning, while bus service is expanding. Main rail lines from Connecticut to Boston started up Friday.

President Obama commented on the recovery effort from Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters Saturday morning.

“There’s nothing more important than us getting this right,” Obama said, according to a transcript. “And we’re going to spend as much time, effort and energy as necessary to make sure that all the people in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut know that the entire country is behind them in this difficult recovery effort. We are going to put not just 100%, but 120% behind making sure that they get the resources they need to rebuild and recover.”

Serna reported from Los Angeles, Carcamo from New York.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

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