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A member of the Salvation Army walks past homes in Breezy Point in New York yesterday AP Photo/Kathy Willens

New York schools to reopen - but freezing weather brings new risks

Tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or damaged by superstorm Sandy now need to find somewhere to live – and temperatures are plunging dramatically.

NEARLY ALL NEW York public schools are set to reopen today in another sign of things getting back to normal in the wake of superstorm Sandy, but authorities faced a new challenge posed by frigid weather.

Tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or damaged by the storm had to cope with plunging temperatures, which raised the specter of people freezing to death.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated that 30,000-40,000 homes in the city alone had been left unusable by the 29 October storm as the cold intensifies.

Sandy pummeled 15 states with fierce winds and a huge tidal surge that killed at least 109 people in the United States and Canada and a damage bill running to tens of billions of dollars.

More than two million homes in seven states are still without power and a new storm predicted to hit on Wednesday is bringing more heavy rain and winds.

“It is starting to get cold, people are in homes that are uninhabitable,” New York state governor Andrew Cuomo told a press conference. “We are going to have tens of thousands of people who need housing solutions right away.”

“This is going to be a massive, massive housing problem,” the governor said.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Bloomberg compared the crisis to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. “I don’t know that anybody has ever taken this number of people and found housing overnight,” the under-pressure New York mayor said.

Tens of thousands fled New Orleans because of the storm. “In this case people are staying in New York City and it’s a challenge for us,” Bloomberg said.

Cuomo said that some people may have to wait two weeks to get power back, and reaffirmed a vow to make sure utility companies are held “accountable.”

More than 200,000 meals are already being handed out each day to the elderly and others in need in New York. The city is again laying on special buses and urging homeless people to go to emergency evacuation centers that remain open.

Poorer parts of the city, including the Rockaway and Staten Island districts were worst hit by the storm, and Bloomberg was the target of expletive-laden rants by inhabitants when he went there Saturday.

Bloomberg called off Sunday’s New York marathon because of protests about the diversion of resources with so many people suffering. Many of the 47,000 contestants descended on Central Park on Sunday to run part of the course while others handed out aid and money to storm victims.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The crisis remains acute in New Jersey, where at least one million people were still without electricity on Sunday – including state governor Chris Christie.

“I am not happy, my wife is not happy,” Christie said in news conference about his efforts to get his northeast state moving again, as he appealed for patience.

He also said that New Jersey will allow voting by email in Tuesday’s presidential, congressional and local elections for those displaced by the storm.

Christie, who introduced fuel rationing on Saturday, said earlier that 280 police officers from other states would help with security in his state starting Monday.

Huge lines of cars and people on foot snaked back from gas stations across the northern half of New Jersey. Drivers with license plates ending in an even number can only fill up on even-numbered dates. Those whose plates end in odd numbers had to wait for odd-numbered dates.

In New York, Cuomo and Bloomberg also appealed for patience as tempers flared among anxious drivers lined up for hours at gas stations, and they insisted that deliveries are improving.

At Coney Island people waited for up to six hours to get some of the free gasoline that federal authorities have sent to New York to help alleviate shortages. Temperatures in New York hovered just above freezing on Saturday night.

“I have to feed the kids, I have to clean up a terrible mess, I have to get ready for work tomorrow, but I have a generator so I have to stay in the queue,” said local resident Karen Braithwaite.

Many of the few gasoline stations that are open in New York are limiting drivers to 30 dollars of fuel at a time, barely a third of a tank for many American cars.

The federal government said it was working with impacted states to improve the fuel situation and had established a toll-free hotline for gas station owners to call if they need an emergency generator, fuel supplies or other assistance, FEMA said in a statement.

FEMA director Craig Fugate, who was in New York, Sunday, surveying ongoing relief efforts in Rockaway, Breezy Point and other affected communities, said his agency has approved more than $158 million for individuals to help with housing and other storm-related needs so far and is still registering claims.

Meanwhile, New York subways are getting back to normal.

- © AFP, 2012

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