NEW YORK (Reuters) – Victims of superstorm Sandy on the East Coast struggled against the cold on Sunday amid fuel shortages and power outages, two days ahead of an election that polls suggest is a dead heat between President Barack Obama and his Republican rival.
Fuel supplies were rumbling toward disaster zones and a million customers regained electricity as near-freezing temperatures descended on the U.S. Northeast overnight. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned the city that it would be days before power was fully restored and fuel shortages ended.
Obama, neck-and-neck in opinion polls with Mitt Romney, ordered emergency response officials to cut through government “red tape” and work without delay to help ravaged areas return to normal as quickly as possible.
The power restorations relit the skyline in Lower Manhattan for the first time in nearly a week and allowed 80 percent of the New York City subway service to resume. But some 2.5 million homes and business still lacked power across the Northeast, down from 3.5 million on Friday.
The power outages combined with a heating oil shortage meant some homes would be cold as unseasonably frigid weather set in. Forecasters saw temperatures dipping into the upper 30s Fahrenheit (around 3 degrees Celsius) on Saturday night with freezing temperatures expected next week.
Bloomberg urged those without power and heat to head to shelters where they could keep warm and receive food.
“Right now it’s starting to really get cold,” he said.
Officials across the storm-ravaged U.S. Northeast are increasingly worried about getting voters displaced by Sandy to polling stations for Tuesday’s election. Scores of voting centers were rendered useless by the record surge of seawater in New York and New Jersey.
New Jersey is allowing voters displaced by superstorm Sandy to vote by email, while some voters in New York could be casting their ballots in tents in an 11th-hour scramble to ensure voting in Tuesday’s elections.
The post-storm chaos in the region has overshadowed the final days of campaigning, making voting an afterthought for many.
“I’m not thinking about the election too much right now,” said Frank Carrol, 59, a retired New York City transit worker who lives in the hard-hit borough of Staten Island. He planned to vote, but did not know if his local polling station would even be open. “We’ll stop by and see what happens,” Carrol said.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered county clerks to open on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate early voters and ensure a “full, fair and transparent open voting process.”
New Jersey authorities also took the uncommon step of declaring that any voter displaced from their home by superstorm Sandy would be designated an overseas voter, which allows them to submit an absentee vote by fax or email.
Reuters storm blog: r.reuters.com/tyj63t
Graphic on Sandy link.reuters.com/daq63t
Graphic showing Sandy’s path link.reuters.com/sar63t
RUNNERS WON’T STUMBLE
The storm’s death toll rose to at least 110 with nine more deaths reported in New Jersey on Saturday, raising the total in that state to 22. Bloomberg put New York City deaths at 41.
Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean before turning north and hammering the U.S. Eastern Seaboard on Monday with 80 mile-per-hour (130-kph) winds and a record surge of seawater that swallowed oceanside communities in New Jersey and New York, and flooded streets and subway tunnels in New York City.
As the biggest U.S. city slowly returns to normal, Bloomberg said the “vast majority” of New York’s 1,750 public schools would reopen on Monday.
New York City’s overstretched police got a break with the cancellation of Sunday’s marathon, a popular annual race that became a lightning rod for critics who said it would divert resources.
Hundreds of runners in New York City are refusing to let the canceled marathon spoil their Sunday plans and are channeling months of preparation into a series of informal runs intended to benefit victims of superstorm Sandy.
Police said that New York City crime dropped by a third in the days after superstorm Sandy, but there was a slight increase in burglaries after at least 15 people were charged with looting empty businesses and homes blacked out since the disaster.
The police said a man wearing a Red Cross jacket was arrested for burglary on Staten Island after being seen checking front doors of unoccupied houses. Police presence at gas stations was increased on Saturday after at least 10 people were arrested on Friday for various disputes over line jumping.
The weather forecast remains bleak. An aggressive early-season “Nor’easter” storm was expected to hit the battered New England coast next week with strong winds and heavy rain.
FISTFIGHTS AT FUEL LINES
Bloomberg praised utility Consolidated Edison for making significant progress in restoring power to customers. But he had sharp words for the Long Island Power Authority, LIPA, which he said “has not acted aggressively enough” in its power restoration efforts, above all in the Rockaways, a beachfront community in the borough of Queens.
In New Jersey, Christie ordered rationing that allows only half of all cars to buy gasoline each day. Obama won praise for the federal storm response but the devastation was so widespread that angry storm victims continued to appear on television.
Tight gasoline supplies have tested the patience of drivers – fistfights have broken out in mile-long lines of cars – but a reopened New York Harbor meant fuel was reaching terminals.
To alleviate one of the country’s worst fuel chain disruptions since the energy shortage in the 1970s, some 8 million gallons of gasoline and other petroleum products have been delivered since Friday, with much more expected this weekend, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
Bloomberg said the fuel shortages would be easing soon, and the U.S. Department of Energy confirmed on Saturday that most filling stations in the metro area had fuel. Cuomo said there were would be free gas available to motorists though the New York National Guard later said emergency personnel and first responders would have priority.
The Obama administration directed that supplies of gas and diesel fuel be trucked to New York and New Jersey. It also waived rules barring foreign-flagged ships from making U.S. domestic fuel transfers.
Consolidated Edison, battling what it called the worst natural disaster in the company’s 180-year history, has restored electricity to most Manhattan neighborhoods. The company said 246,000 customers in New York City and Westchester County still had no power, down from nearly a million cut off by the storm.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus throughout the U.S. Northeast; Writing by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Eric Walsh)