New York City began rationing gasoline on Friday for the first time since the energy shortages of the 1970s, seeking to ease a fuel crisis in the U.S. Northeast brought on by devastating Superstorm Sandy.
The former hurricane that hammered the East Coast on October 29 killed at least 120 people and caused an estimated $50 billion in damage or economic losses.
It also disrupted the fuel supply chain, creating hours-long waits for gasoline that led officials first in New Jersey and now New York City and Long Island to impose rationing that allows only cars with odd- or even-numbered license plates to buy gas on any single day.
"This is worse than the oil crises of the 1970s," said Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops. "Back then there was just a perceived shortage of supply in New York, when there was plenty gasoline around. Now we're having real distribution problems."
The long lines at the pump have added to the frustration of commuters, who must choose between driving and enduring seemingly interminable waits for buses and trains with parts of the transportation network still damaged.
In addition, some 696,000 homes and businesses in the Northeast lacked power as of Thursday night, creating more misery for the thousands forced to flee their storm-damaged homes or for those who have hunkered down in the dark with freezing overnight temperatures.
Protesters took to the streets in the Long Island town of Oceanside on Friday, chanting, "Where is LIPA? Where is LIPA?" referring to the Long Island Power Authority, a state-owned utility.
After Wednesday's snowstorm blasted the area with fierce winds that knocked out even more power, warmer and sunny weather was forecast for the weekend, providing some relief to disaster victims.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at first resisted gas rationing, saying fuel supplies should return to normal once New York Harbor reopened after the storm and tankers started sailing again.
But many gasoline terminals - which transfer fuel from tankers at sea to trucks on land - sustained damage from the storm that created a record surge of seawater and flooded low-lying areas.
"The trucks can only get two loads today because of the queues at the terminals, when normally they would get six," Bombardiere said. "The situation should hopefully start to improve now they've finally implemented odd-even rationing in the city, which should help cut down on panic buying."
Some 28 percent of gas stations in the New York metropolitan area did not have fuel available for sale on Thursday, down from 38 percent on Wednesday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said on Friday.
LIKE A FOREIGN COUNTRY?
A week after Sandy, Doctors Without Borders established temporary emergency clinics in the hard-hit Rockaways - a barrier island in Queens facing the Atlantic Ocean - to tend to residents of high-rises, who still lacked power and heat and were left isolated by the storm.
"A lot of us have said it feels a lot like being in the field in a foreign country," said Manhattan doctor Lucy Doyle, who has worked for the medical relief organization in Africa.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was providing mobile homes to people displaced by the storm, a reminder of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast seven years ago. Some evacuees would be housed nearly 200 miles (320 km) from home, FEMA said, because there was little available space closer to the city.
Three major legal aid providers seeking to help victims have been hampered by their own storm-related damage.
Legal Services NYC, the New York Legal Assistance Group and the Legal Aid Society were shut out of their downtown New York City offices when Sandy struck and have been operating out of satellite offices or spaces borrowed from other nonprofit groups and large law firms.
Manhattan shops and restaurants have yet to recover. Some are awaiting emergency loans, while others are trying to make it on their own.
"We don't have the product to sell," said Zach Mack, a co-owner of the ABC Beer Co., which flooded last week, knocking out electricity for days. "And we don't have the people to sell it to."
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan, Peter Rudegeair and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Xavier Briand)