Trains Roll, but Northeast Struggles Back From Sandy
New Yorkers felt the rumble of subway trains Thursday for the first time in four days, but gasoline shortages persisted in the Northeast and emergency crews struggled to reach the worst-hit areas and restore power to millions of people.
In the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, one the biggest and most devastating storms ever to hit the United States, the death toll rose to 85, and could climb higher as rescuers searched house-to-house through coastal towns.
More deaths were recorded overnight as the extent of destruction became clearer in the New York City borough of Staten Island, where the storm lifted whole houses off their foundations.
Authorities recovered 17 bodies from Staten Island, including two boys. Two-year-old Brandon Moore and 4-year-old Connor Moore were swept into swirling waters after their mother placed them on the roof of her SUV on Monday amid rushing waters that caused the vehicle to stall, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. In all, 37 people died in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday.
In hard-hit New Jersey, where oceanside towns saw entire neighborhoods swallowed by seawater and the Atlantic City boardwalk was destroyed, the death toll doubled to 12.
New Jersey favorite son Bruce Springsteen, along with Jon Bon Jovi and Sting, will headline a enefit concert for storm victims Friday night on NBC television, the network announced.
(Read More: Springsteen, Bon Jovi Top NBC's All-Star Benefit)
Sandy started as a late-season hurricane in the Caribbean, where it killed 69 people, before smashing ashore in the United States with 80 mph (130 kph) winds. It stretched from the Carolinas to Connecticut and was the largest storm by area to hit the United States in decades.
About 4.7 million homes and businesses in 15 U.S. states were without power on Thursday, down from a high of nearly 8.5 million, which surpassed the record 8.4 million customers who went dark from last year's Hurricane Irene.
In metro New York, Consolidated Edison said it had restored power to only about 250,000 of the 900,000 customers who were affected by the storm. It said outages could last until Nov. 11 or longer.
Sandy made landfall in New Jersey with a full moon around high tide, creating a record storm surge that flooded lower Manhattan. By Thursday, the storm had dissipated over the North American mainland.
The total economic damage could run $50 billion, according to the forecasting firm Eqecat. That would make it the costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina. Katrina's overall costs were $108 billion, the equivalent of $128 billion today.
With damage estimates rising, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he wants the federal government to pay all of the estimated $6 billion in costs for cleaning up and repairing damage.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency promise to pick up all the costs of getting power and transportation restored for the next week for the hardest hits parts of New York and New Jersey. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said it's too early to know how much of the costs the government may eventually cover.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama offered unspecified assistance to New Jersey while viewing flooded and sand-swept shore communities on a helicopter tour with Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Christie, who delivered the keynote address at the GOP National Convention, praised Obama, saying it's "really important to have the president of the United States" in New Jersey.
"The entire country's been watching. Everyone knows how hard Jersey has been hit," Obama told people at an evacuation shelter in the town of Brigantine.
But after a three-day hiatus to deal with the storm, Obama returned to the campaign trail on Thursday, boosted in his re-election bid by Christie's resounding endorsement of his disaster response.
The Democratic incumbent, tied in polls with Mitt Romney before Tuesday's election, began a two-day trip, stopping in Wisconsin and planning to visit the swing states of Colorado, Ohio and Nevada. Romney addressed a rally in Virginia.
Back in New York, Bloomberg announced a surprise endorsement of Obama's re-election bid. The mayor, an independent, said his decision was influenced by Hurricane Sandy and Obama's views on climate change.
"Our climate is changing," he wrote in an op-ed article for Bloomberg View. "And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."
(Read More: Presidential Campaigns Go Full Tilt After Storm Break)
Earlier Thursday, the mayor announced plans to distribute free food and water. In Brooklyn, people lined up for blocks to board buses. Fares were waived on New York City's transit system for Thursday and Friday.
Limited service returned on some train and subway lines.
Ronnie Abraham was waiting at Penn Station for a subway train to Harlem, a trip that takes 2 1/2 hours on city buses that have been overwhelmed since resuming service Tuesday.
"It's the lifeline of the city," Abraham said. "It can't get much better than this."
Further downtown, Lower Manhattan, which includes the financial district, Sept. 11 memorial and other tourist sites, was still mostly an urban landscape of shuttered bodegas and boarded-up restaurants. People roamed in search of food, power and a hot shower. Some dispirited and fearful New Yorkers decided to flee the city.
"It's dirty, and it's getting a little crazy down there," said Michael Tomeo, who boarded a bus to Philadelphia with his 4-year-old son. "It just feels like you wouldn't want to be out at night. Everything's pitch dark. I'm tired of it, big-time."