NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Yorkers took to the streets on Sunday to help in the recovery from superstorm Sandy, volunteering to clean up devastated areas and using the annual Veterans Day parade to collect donations for victims struggling without homes or power.
Police raised the storm’s death toll in New York City to 43, adding the death of a 77-year-old retired custodian who was found last week at the bottom of the steps of his apartment building in Rockaway, Queens, paralyzed and with head injuries. He died at a hospital on Saturday, they said.
The Rockaways peninsula in the city’s Queens borough was one of the hardest hit by the storm, one of the region’s worst natural disasters in history, which toppled houses, uprooted trees and left hundreds of thousands of people without power.
Thousands of people remained in temporary shelters.
Organizers of the Veterans Day parade, New York City’s first post-Sandy major event since the marathon was canceled last weekend, asked spectators lining the parade route to bring coats to be donated to storm victims.
More than 20,000 people were set to march in the parade, the nation’s largest, and some 600,000 were expected to watch, organizers said.
Organizers were hoping to collect 50,000 coats by week’s end, part of an annual coat drive that started two weeks early to help Sandy victims, said Gary Bagley, executive director of New York Cares.
“What’s wonderful is that veterans came to us and felt in the spirit of service that is so prevalent among folks in the armed forces they wanted to make sure the veterans were not only being honored today but also doing their bit to help,” he said.
“To have the first event following Hurricane Sandy to be about those who have served the public I think could not be more fitting,” he added.
Power outages continued to plague the region, fraying tempers among people living without lights, heat or hot water.
The U.S. Department of Energy said there were 166,499 customers without power in New York, New Jersey and West Virginia following Sandy and the recent Nor‘easter storm.
The number of outages was down by 122,740 from Saturday’s tally, it said.
The combined total of customer outages from Sandy and the Nor‘easter peaked at more than 8.6 million after the hurricane came ashore on the New Jersey coast on October 29.
On Long Island, to the east of New York City, some 59,000 people remained without power, according to the Long Island Power Authority. It said it restored power to 38,000 customers on Saturday.
LIPA said 55,000 homes could not have power restored, however, until homeowners have their equipment repaired and inspected.
Electric utilities have drawn withering criticism for their failure to quickly restore power throughout the region. Speaking on CNN, U.S. Representative Peter King, who represents the area, called the situation “a disgrace.”
“The LIPA has failed miserably. They are not doing a good job,” he said. “It really has reached crisis proportions.”
Sandy smashed into the East Coast on October 29, killing at least 121 people and causing an estimated $50 billion in damages and economic losses.
Recovery workers, from volunteers to National Park Service workers to thousands of National Guard members, helped with the cleanup. A bit of relief came in the form of warm temperatures.
In Queens, small cranes scooped up mounds of sand washed ashore by the storm.
“We’re taking it one day at a time,” said Jim Long, a firefighter whose home suffered water damage. “The water table is pretty high. You clean out some water and come back the next day and there’s more water.”
Sunday marked the third day of gas rationing in New York City, under a system in which cars with odd- and even-numbered license plates can fill up only on alternate days.
Commuters were facing ongoing disruptions to bus, train and subway service. Only one-third of New Jersey Transit trains were running, officials said.
Newly re-elected President Barack Obama is to visit hard-hit areas of New York City on Thursday.
“We’ve given out almost two million meals, half a million liters of water and more than 100,000 blankets, as well as space heaters, baby supplies, flashlight batteries and much more,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said of the city’s recovery efforts on Sunday.
New York’s Con Edison utility said more than 8,000 customers in New York City and suburban Westchester County remained without electrical service.
It said thousands of customers in flood-ravaged areas of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island cannot get power restored until their equipment is repaired and tested.
More than 356,000 people New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA said late on Saturday.
In Staten Island, a fear of crime in the darkened neighborhoods was evident in signs hanging on many houses that read “Beware of Dog” or “This home is Remington protected.”
Sandy caused five times as many outages as the next largest storm in Con Edison’s history, which was Hurricane Irene in August 2011, the utility said.
Touring battered coastal towns in New Jersey on Saturday, Governor Chris Christie warned that the recovery will take a long time and residents should be realistic.
“It’s not going to be all fixed by Memorial Day,” he said. “I know New Jerseyans. I know what they’re going to think: ‘They’ll get it all fixed by Memorial Day.’ We’ll try like hell, but we’ve got to make sure that they don’t assume that’s what’s going to happen.”
In New Jersey, the PSE&G utility said some 4,000 customers remained without electricity but that it had restored power to 99.9 percent of the 1.7 million customers hit.
New York City officials released accounts by police on Sunday describing extraordinary rescue efforts during the storm.
Some police officers surrounded by rising floodwaters and floating debris roped themselves to trees to rescue a pregnant woman and child, while others waded through floodwater made hazardous by live power lines that had fallen into the depths, police said. (Additional reporting by Eileen Houlihan and Olivia Oran, Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Doina Chiacu)