New York – Just shy of a week after Superstorm Sandy ravaged through the New York City metropolitan area, another challenge looms ahead for the region as commuters, students and motorists — forced out of their cars by a fuel shortage — converge on transit systems not fully ready for them.
The good news in New York City was that, unlike last week, service on key subway lines connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn under the East River had been restored. But officials warned that other water-logged tunnels still weren't ready for Monday's rush hour and that fewer-than-normal trains were running — a recipe for a difficult commute.
"Service will not be normal tomorrow, and we need you to understand that before you enter the system," Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned Sunday.
Last week, with much of the subway system still crippled, commuters who turned to street transportation caused gridlock in Manhattan and elsewhere. A patchwork solution of shuttle buses and rules limiting bridge traffic to cars carrying at least three people didn't provide much relief.
Repair crews have been laboring around-the-clock in response to the worst natural disaster in the transit system's 108-year history, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota said Sunday.
"We are in uncharted territory with bringing this system back because of the amount of damage and saltwater in our system," Lhota said. "It's an old system ... and it's just had a major accident."
The MTA planned to take the unusual step of using flatbed trucks to deliver 20 subway cars to the hard-hit Far Rockaway section of Queens and set up a temporary shuttle line.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters he expected to take the subway to work on Monday. He'll be joined by many of the students returning to class in the nation's largest school system. About 90 percent of the 1,700 schools will reopen for the first time since Sandy hit last Monday, the mayor said.
Brooklyn Heights resident Whitney Browne, a 43-year-old father of two grade school girls, was lucky that their school provided some daycare last week. But the girls, 7-year-old Annabel and 5-year-old Lucy, frowned when asked how they felt about having regular school again and Browne worried about returning to work Monday as a digital marketer based in lower Manhattan.
"Everybody is going to be coming back to work so I expect it's going to be a zoo on the subway," he said.
Sandy — which killed more than 100 people in 10 states, caused massive power outages and left tens of thousands in need of emergency housing — also created a fuel shortage that has forced New Jersey to enforce odd-even rationing for motorists. But there was no rationing in New York City, where the search for gas became a maddening scavenger hunt over the weekend.
Manhattan doorman Iver Sanchez, who lives in Queens, waited at an Upper West Side gas station for three hours and still had a long line of cars ahead of him.
"If I don't get gas today, I won't be able to get any for the rest of the week," he said.
In the Bronx, a Citgo station had received gas early Saturday evening, but within seven hours had run through a supply which usually lasts two to three days, said gas attendant Nagi Singh.
"A lot of people were angry with me," he said.
In New Jersey, Monday promised to begin the return to some everyday activities. About half the school districts reported they will reopen and New Jersey Transit said it would have more train and bus service restored in time for the workweek. Philadelphia's transit authority loaned 31 buses that New Jersey Transit planned to use to support shuttle service for commuters traveling to New York City.
Some New Jersey commuters weren't waiting. A bus from Hoboken to Manhattan Sunday looked more like an airport bound shuttle, with many passengers carrying luggage so they could spend the night with friends in the city and dodge the morning meltdown.
"This is going to be a nightmare tomorrow," said Jon Evoy, who works in advertising.
The coming week could bring other challenges — namely an Election Day without power in polling places, and a nor'easter expected hit the area by Wednesday, with the potential for 55 mph gusts and more beach erosion, flooding and rain.
In New York, power has been restored to nearly 80 percent of its customers who were blacked out in the storm, but efforts to get everyone back on line could be hampered by more wet, windy weather.
"Restoration crews love blue sky days," said John Miksad, Con Edison's senior vice president of electric operations. "When the wind gets high and the weather gets ugly ... It just slows things down."
The weather forecast was more bad news for people still without power and other necessities.
In Far Rockaway Sunday, on a basketball court flanked by powerless apartment buildings, emergency volunteers handed out bagels, diapers, water and blankets. Organizers said several hundred people had come through the playground distribution center.
Genice Josey made sure to fill her bulging garbage bag with a blanket now the nights are getting frigid.
"Nights are the worst because you feel like you're outside when you're inside," she said. "You shiver yourself to sleep."
Josey, who shares an apartment with her son, sleeps beneath three blankets and wears long johns under her pajamas — a common strategy in the no-power zone.
Elsewhere in line, Jocelyn Martinez said she sleeps with a sweater and her family keeps the stove on all night.
They were happy for the help but were clearly fatigued after nearly a week without power.
"It's like we're going back to barbaric times where we had to go find food and clothing and shelter," Josey said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.