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NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City drivers will wake up on Friday to the first widespread gas rationing since the fuel crisis of the 1970s, as the U.S. Northeast struggles to recover from the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and a subsequent snowstorm.
After a difficult commute Thursday night that saw heavily armed police trying to quiet crowds at area bus and train stations, New Jersey authorities are adding free buses and ferries Friday to try and ease commutes that have been four and five times longer than normal all week.
The recovery from Sandy stalled Wednesday after a snowstorm that plunged 300,000 homes and businesses back into darkness. By Thursday night much of the snow melted, and temperatures were due to warm slightly Friday, welcome news for the thousands of people still without power.
Bitter cold, rain, snow and powerful winds added to the misery of disaster victims whose homes were destroyed or power was knocked out by Sandy. The storm came ashore on October 29 and caused widespread flooding, leading up to as much as $50 billion in economic losses and prompting the medical relief group Doctors Without Borders to set up its first-ever U.S. clinic.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was providing mobile homes to house those displaced by the storm, a reminder of the scramble after Hurricane Katrina seven years ago to tend to the newly homeless. Some evacuees will be put up nearly 200 miles (321 km) from home, FEMA said, because there is little available space closer to the city.
With drivers still struggling to find adequate fuel, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday the city would begin an indefinite program of gas rationing early Friday.
It is modelled on one New Jersey implemented last week - allowing drivers to fill up on alternating days depending on their license plate number - that has reduced lines dramatically.
Bloomberg indicated that the city had little choice.
"It now appears there will be shortages for possibly another couple weeks," Bloomberg said, later adding, "If you think about it, it's not any great imposition once you get used to it."
Neighbouring counties would implement a similar program, he said, in an effort to cut down lines that ran for hours at local filling stations following Sandy. The city's iconic yellow taxis are exempt from the new regulation.
New Yorkers, never known for holding their tongues, let their exasperation with the bad weather show.
"Kick in the gas," the New York Post blared in a headline on its website, a day after its print newspaper hit the streets with the cover headline "God hates us!"
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, which still lacked power and heat and were left isolated by the storm.
"I don't think any of us expected to see this level of lacking access to health care," said Lucy Doyle, who specializes in internal medicine at New York's Bellevue Hospital and has done stints with the group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya. "A lot of us have said, it feels a lot like being in the field in a foreign country."
Sandy's death toll in the United States and Canada reached 121 after New York authorities on Wednesday reported another death linked to the storm in the Rockaways.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo turned his ire on the power utilities, which he said had failed customers.
Some 696,000 homes and businesses in the region were without power as of late Thursday night.
The storm damage exposed flaws in the regulation of power utilities that will require a complete redesign, said Cuomo, who oversees the state-controlled utilities and appoints the members of the Public Service Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities such as Consolidated Edison (ED.N).
"It is nameless, faceless bureaucracy that is a monopoly that operates with very little incentive or sanction. ... They have failed the consumers," Cuomo said.
Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Philip Barbara, Michelle Conlin, Chelsea Emery, Jilian Mincer and Edward Krudy; Writing by Dan Trotta and Ben Berkowitz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker