New York kids back in school, but chaos continues

New York kids back in school, but chaos continues
New York:  Children flocked to reopened schools across New York on Monday for the first time since superstorm Sandy, but colder weather brought misery for hundreds of thousands of people still lacking power.

The sight of yellow school buses crisscrossing the Big Apple marked a major step back to normality for a city that suffered unprecedented damage from the hurricane-strength storm, which struck a week ago.

About one million children were back at their desks, with only 101 schools out of 1,700 still shut due to storm damage or because they were being used as emergency shelters. Many of those were to open in new locations on Wednesday.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said attendance was 86 percent, normal for a Monday.

The week's first commute, however, tested the recovering transit system to the maximum, with passengers crammed into buses and trains before walking down Manhattan sidewalks punctuated with growing piles of uncollected garbage.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the buses and subway trains in New York, said the system was up to 80 percent capacity.

Buses in neighboring New Jersey were up to 90 percent, but the major commuter rail link across the Hudson River to Manhattan remained shut.

With public transport still limited, more people than usual relied on cars -- if they could find fuel. Despite improvements in restoring supplies, filling the tank remained a nightmare, with huge lines and rationing in New Jersey.

"I waited eight hours at the station to finally get 30 dollars of gas, which was the limit," cab driver Sherif Roby said in New York. "Many of my friends have been unable to work because they can't find gas."

Following numerous instances of flaring tempers among motorists, Bloomberg announced Monday that every city gas station would have a police officer posted outside.

In addition, state authorities said they were investigating widespread reports of price gouging on fuel, water and other vital items. Sellers advertising on Craigslist offered a gallon for between 10 and 20 dollars, not the approximately four dollars listed in stations.

"We are actively investigating hundreds of complaints we've received from consumers of businesses preying on victims," Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said.

Restoration of electricity continued apace, but that was little comfort to the remaining 1.35 million people who have already spent a week without light, and often heat, and were still likely to face at least several days more.

The US Department of Energy said that 756,774 homes and businesses in New Jersey were in the dark, or 19 percent of all customers, while New York state had another 492,575 outages, six percent of the total.

Con Edison, the main power company for New York City, said 80 percent of its customers had their electricity restored, while New Jersey's PSEG utility said it expected that its last repairs would be complete by Friday.

Another immediate challenge was Tuesday's presidential election.

In the worst-hit neighborhoods, 59 New York polling stations were listed as closed, and voters were instructed to go to alternate sites, while in New Jersey, authorities were allowing limited numbers to cast votes by email or fax.

In a major shift in the rules, New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo late Monday also ordered that voters from any of the storm-ravaged counties or New York City would have the right to cast ballots anywhere they wanted.

"You can go to any polling place if you are displaced, sign an affidavit, and you can vote in that polling place," he said.

The bigger problem looming for people left homeless, or with damaged homes, was the impending winter and, more immediately, a strong gale forecasted for Wednesday. Nighttime temperatures were close to freezing this week.

However, there was good news when Bloomberg sharply lowered the estimate of the number of those needing emergency shelter to a maximum of 10,000, down from his earlier estimate of 30,000 to 40,000. That, he said Monday, is now only "the worst scenario."

A week after the storm hit, city officials say there are 4,880 people living in 14 shelters. In addition, 200 warming centers have been set up for people without heat to escape the growing chilly weather, and 12 food distribution points are working in the worst-hit zones.

On Sunday, some 600,000 meals were handed out to about 200,000 people, as well as 100,000 liters of water, the mayor's office said.

Sandy, which began as a deadly hurricane in the Caribbean, pummeled 15 US states and prompted a huge tidal surge that killed at least 109 people in the United States and Canada and caused tens of billions of dollars worth of damage.

A high-level government delegation, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, toured the region Monday.
Story First Published: November 06, 2012 07:40 IST

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