As New York City police and firefighters continue their life-saving missions in storm-ravaged neighborhoods, they keep finding more bodies of victims from the superstorm that has devastated parts of the East Coast, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday.
In a midday news briefing, Bloomberg (I) said Sandy, the Category 1 hurricane that merged with a nor'easter when it struck the New Jersey coast on Monday, "took the lives of at least 37 New Yorkers." He cautioned, "That number may continue to rise."
The city's death toll, 15 higher than previously reported, means that at least 90 deaths are now attributed to Sandy in 10 states.
As the grim discoveries mount, federal, state and local authorities are pressing ahead with efforts to recover from a disaster that keeps pushing up damage estimates — now projected as high as $50 billion.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's focus has shifted from search and rescue to power restoration, floodwater pumping operations, providing basic necessities and reaching out to hard-hit communities, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told reporters Thursday.
The Red Cross has opened more than 100 shelters in nine states and is ramping up feeding operations in New Jersey, Lower Manhattan, Long Island and other places that have no power, said Charley Shimanski, the organization's senior vice president for disaster services.
"Feeding and shelter is our primary focus," Shimanski said on a conference call with Fugate. "This is a frustrating time for people. We want people to know we're doing everything possible."
Officials said they expect to serve 250,000 to 500,000 meals a day in New York City.
More than 4.6 million homes and businesses along the East Coast remained without power Thursday, down from more than 8 million, news agencies reported.
In New York City, 534,000 customers still had no electricity, compared to 642,000 who had no power at the same time Wednesday, Bloomberg said.
As part of federal efforts to help, the Defense Department is using massive military transport planes to airlift 62 Southern California Edison vehicles and 100 power restoration employees across the country to New York, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Fugate said President Barack Obama has instructed FEMA to cover 100 percent of power restoration and transportation for a 10-day period. He said he is open to the federal government also covering more than the usual 75 percent share of the remaining costs but that it was too early to say whether that would happen.
FEMA has four generators installed and expects to have 70 up and running by the end of Thursday, Fugate said.
Bloomberg said he hoped that electricity would be restored to most schools — many of which double as polling places — before the Nov. 6 elections. But he said election officials would probably have to find alternatives for some schools with transformers in flooded basements. City schools, closed all this week, are scheduled to reopen Monday.
According to Eqecat Inc., which provides catastrophic risk models, the economic damage from Sandy may reach $50 billion, more than double previous estimates. Of that, the firm said, about $10 billion to $20 billion may be covered by insurance.
In Manhattan, power was being restored only slowly Thursday to pockets below 42nd Street. Many large buildings remained dark, including the New York Public Library. The five-star Setai Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 38th street, near the Empire State Building, was dark as a cavern and had no hot water. Nevertheless, a doorman reported that the hotel was 60 percent full with stranded guests, who were taking cold showers and being served whatever wasn't spoiled in the hotel pantry.
Other hotels scaled back on amenities because of transportation difficulties that kept their service people from getting into Midtown. The W Hotel, for example, suspended its maid and valet services due to what it called a "reduced workforce."
The effect on the Midtown economy was palpable. Normally teeming Grand Central Station was open, but crowds were sparse, with only a limited number of lines operating from Midtown and Harlem to suburban areas such as White Plains and Mount Kisco. The popular Grand Central restaurants Cipriani and Michael Jordan's Steakhouse had only one or two guests at lunch hour.
The region was also plagued by gasoline shortages.
In the New Jersey town of Point Pleasant, Baris Alkoc opened his Singin gas station Thursday even though his own home was reachable only by canoe.
A line of cars several blocks long waited an hour or more for a $20 ration of gas, and dozens of people lined up with plastic cans to get fuel for generators.
Alkoc predicted that he would run out by day's end.
"Once the gas runs out, people will start panicking," he said. "There will be more fires. People will burn books, wood, anything they can."
Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd said a team of prosecutors was going door to door in the barrier island community urging the 50 to 100 remaining residents to evacuate. But as long as they had a generator and were on high ground, they would be permitted to stay, he said.
Boyd said the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was also evacuating pets so they did not die and create a stench that would confuse police dogs sniffing for human remains. He said there may be bodies on the cut-off island, but he scoffed at rumors that bodies had been confirmed.
"You know 'reports,' " he said. "I'm surprised Snooki wasn't over there dancing on a bar."
Rescue officials continued to confront flooded cities and battered beach towns that remained dangerous and chaotic, particularly in pockets of New Jersey.
Large portions of the old factory city of Hoboken were still flooded, and pumps were working round-the-clock to clear a toxic and potentially deadly mix of water, oil and sewage estimated at more than 500 million gallons. National Guard troops in 2.5-ton Humvees patrolled the flooded streets, seeking to evacuate the most vulnerable of the city's 20,000 stranded residents, nearly half of Hoboken's population, who were told to stay inside and signal for help with pillowcases.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer stood in the gathering darkness Wednesday afternoon and begged the outside world to speed more supplies, such as flashlights, batteries, food, generator fuel and drinking water.
"We ask anyone who's listening to deliver supplies to us," she said from the steps of City Hall, which was without power.
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Morello reported from New Jersey and Branigin reported from Washington. Lisa Rein in Hoboken, N.J., and Greg Jaffe, Debbi Wilgoren and Steve Vogel in Washington contributed to this report.