(MCT) — SEA GATE, N.Y. — Hundreds of thousands of children finally went back to school Monday and New York slogged through a full-fledged commute — but the Northeast kept one eye on its halting recovery, the other on a you-can’t-be-serious second storm that could bring high winds and flooding to communities already staggered by Sandy.
“Insult to injury,” said Michael Szajngarten, as he sorted through his battered home in this seaside Brooklyn community, just down the road from the Coney Island boardwalk.
Half of Sea Gate’s 850 homes sustained significant damage, and 25 are gone. Three-quarters of a concrete sea wall, a barrier intended to protect the exposed spit of land from storms, was damaged or destroyed. Szajngarten, 33, a fifth-generation New Yorker, shuddered at the prospect of another storm — considering that Sandy had ripped a hole in his living room wall, offering him a suddenly unobstructed view of the sea.
“I have a giant hole and I’m trying to clean it out,” Szajngarten said. “The last thing I need now is for rain to wash everything away and make it all muddy again.”
A nor’easter churning off the southeast Monday was expected to rake the beleaguered Northeast on Wednesday and Thursday. Although the storm would by no means be as potent as Sandy, it could mean 2 inches of rain in some places, sustained winds of at least 40 mph and gusts approaching 60 mph. Snow could fall in Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. Water levels could rise by 3 or 4 feet in some areas when “breaking waves” as tall as 14 feet roll in ahead of the storm, the National Weather Service said.
President Barack Obama convened a briefing Monday with local, state and federal officials, and urged emergency responders to gird themselves for more weather. The federal government launched an initiative to coordinate fuel distribution, eliminating bureaucratic hurdles to combat a shortage that has left 27 percent of gas stations dry in the New York metropolitan area.
Local officials were also scrambling to respond. Some beachfront communities considered new evacuation orders. The Red Cross said it would assemble 80,000 blankets to distribute as temperatures dropped into the 30s. Authorities said they were moving to drain floodwaters and restore power as quickly as possible.
“All of this has made work more difficult and more urgent,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
By Monday afternoon, power had been restored to 7.1 million of the 8.5 million homes and businesses, in 21 states, that lost electricity in the storm. About 1.4 million homes and businesses remained in the dark, most in New York and New Jersey. New Jersey remained in particularly dire straits; 19 percent of homes and businesses there lacked power.
Even without a second storm, authorities said that as many as 40,000 people could require temporary housing. So far, more than 34,000 families are getting some short-term hotel or rental payments in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, according to federal officials.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said 217,000 people have registered for FEMA assistance, with the vast majority of funding routed to housing assistance.
In New York City, 90 percent of its 1,700 public schools reopened Monday. Morning attendance was 86 percent, Bloomberg said.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said construction had resumed at the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan — where a cascade of floodwater was captured in an iconic photograph during the height of the storm. Authorities had also finished pumping out 16 million gallons of floodwater from the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the 12th and final casino in Atlantic City, the historic Jersey Shore town just north of where Sandy made landfall, had reopened. PATH trains were cleared to begin offering limited service between New York and New Jersey on Tuesday morning. More vital subway lines opened; Bloomberg was among those taking the subway. Trains were packed and lines for the ferry were several hundred people deep. The commute was not seamless — it rarely is even in good weather — but it was a sign the region was lurching back to life.
At the New York Stock Exchange, floor traders — many of whom live in hard-hit outer boroughs of New York and in New Jersey — milled about on the floor, some enjoying the heat and power they lacked at home. Floor trader Jonathan Corpina estimated that more than 80 percent of his colleagues had returned.
“Little by little, we’re getting more and more people back here,” he said. “Coming out of the subway this morning, it was nice to have to wait for cars to pass to cross over Broadway. … It felt like a normal Monday.”
Reflecting the difficulty of the months ahead, however, even progress was met with fresh concerns. In particular, Fugate said, “as power comes on, there are longer-term issues of rebuilding.”
Nowhere was that more evident than in Hoboken, N.J., a flood-ravaged city of 50,000 across the Hudson River from Manhattan. On Monday, almost everyone got their power back — prompting both elation and a wave of calls to emergency workers. Firefighters responded to carbon monoxide scares, calls to check fuel oil seeping up through heating vents, calls when residents smelled smoke.
“Calls are coming in constantly,” said Hoboken Fire Chief Richard Blohm. No major fire-related injuries had been reported among residents or firefighters, he said.
Salvatore Picinich, 35, revved up a generator at his mother’s rented house where the basement had been inundated with about 5 feet of water.
“Everyone’s coming today — the plumber, the electrician,” he said. “I feel it should be safe. We’ll see what happens, I guess.” As fire officials recommended, however, he was not going to flip the circuit breaker himself; he was going to wait for the electrician.
The recovery was uneven, underscoring fears that the working class would be the last on its feet. After power had been restored in much of the city, officials struggled to get electricity back to towering brick high-rises that comprised public housing.
Adrienne Rawlins, 43, walked across town to city hall to demand answers. “I’ve got two elderly women in there and a newborn. Where’s the generators?” Rawlins shouted at a volunteer.
Rawlins left fuming, with few answers. She said she’d sent her daughters, ages 4 and 5, to stay with their father a few blocks away. She and her neighbors, who weathered the storm in the high rises, have been feeding the elderly in the buildings. “We take care of our own,” she said.
Another woman pointed Rawlins toward Salvation Army volunteers and said that she, too, had been displaced. “Yours is not the only building,” the woman said.
Tears ran down Rawlins’ face.
“You don’t live by me. You don’t know what it’s like,” she said. “I want to take care of my family. You know how it feels to not have my girls with me? I want my heat on. I’ve had to replace food. I can’t clean clothes.”
(Carcamo reported from Sea Gate, N.Y., Hennessy-Fiske from Hoboken, N.J., and Gold from Los Angeles. Staff writers Andrew Tangel in New York and Michael Muskal and Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)