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."
More than half of the gas stations in the city and neighboring New Jersey remained shut due to power outages and depleted fuel supplies. Even before dawn, long lines formed at gas stations that were expected to open.
(Read More: Why East Coast Gas Shortages May Linger)
Fuel supplies into New York and New Jersey were being choked off in several ways. Two refineries that make up a quarter of the region's refining capacity were still idle due to power outages or flooding. The New York Harbor waterway that imports a fifth of the area's fuel was still closed to traffic, and major import terminals were damaged and powerless.
In addition, the main oil pipeline from the Gulf Coast, which pumps 15 percent of the East Coast's fuel, remained shut.
Matthew Gessler of Brooklyn went to Breezy Point, a New York neighborhood where fire destroyed 111 homes, to inspect damage to his mother's house. Like others, he likened it to a war zone.
He said you could take a picture of the devastation and say it was the Middle East "and no one would doubt you at all."
In Jersey City, across the Hudson River from New York, drivers negotiated intersections without the aid of traffic lights. Shops were shuttered and lines formed outside pharmacies while people piled sodden mattresses and furniture along the side of the roads. The city has issued a curfew on people as well as a driving ban from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
New Yorkers faced an easier commute as the subway system resumed limited operations. But four of the seven subway tunnels under the East River remained flooded and there was no service in Manhattan below 34th Street, where the power is still out.
Subway rides were free as authorities encouraged commuters to use mass transit rather than drive. Bloomberg and state Gov. Andrew Cuomo said private cars must carry at least three people in order to enter Manhattan, after the city was clogged by traffic on Wednesday.
LaGuardia airport in New York reopened Thursday with limited service, a day after Kennedy and Newark airports resumed limited service.
Suburban commuter trains started running for the first time on Wednesday, and Amtrak's Northeast Corridor was to take commuters from city to city on Friday for the first time since the storm.
From West Virginia to the Jersey Shore, the storm's damage was still being felt, and seen.
Five-foot snow drifts piled up in West Virginia, where Sandy merged with two winter weather systems as it went inland. Snow collapsed parts of an apartment complex, a grocery store, a hardwood plant and three homes.
One person killed in the state was a candidate for the state House, John Rose Sr., who was struck by a falling tree limb. His name will remain on the ballot on Election Day.
In New Jersey, signs of the good life that had defined wealthy shorefront enclaves like Bayhead and Mantoloking lay scattered and broken: $3,000 barbecue grills buried beneath the sand and hot tubs cracked and filled with seawater.
Nearly all the homes were seriously damaged, and many had disappeared.
"This," said Harry Typaldos, who owns the Grenville Inn in Mantoloking, "I just can't comprehend."
Most of the state's mass transit systems remained shut down, leaving hundreds of thousands of commuters braving clogged highways and quarter-mile lines at gas stations.
Atlantic City's casinos remained closed.
In Seaside Heights, first home of MTV's "Jersey Shore," the waterfront rides on Casino Pier are gone, swallowed by the sea. A roller coaster was tossed into the ocean, the boardwalk is gone and sand, leaves and debris choked roads lined with houses that rest on their sides.
The house where the "Jersey Shore" cast lived appeared to avoid any damage. But elsewhere on the island — technically a long, narrow peninsula — boats had been tossed like toys, resting atop houses and cars. One lay next to a motel.
About 300 people have been taken off the island since the storm passed, public safety officials said. About 70 remain and will be ordered to leave and not allowed to return to the island until at least the weekend.
"We have to get everyone off the island because there is total devastation," Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd said Wednesday.
Long Road to Recovery
The storm was likely to rank as one of the costliest storms in U.S. history. One disaster-modeling firm said Sandy may have caused up to $15 billion in insured losses.
(Read More: Sandy's Economic Cost: $50 Billion and Counting)
Economists say there is some positive news for the economy, with increased spending from reconstruction expected to help boost growth next year.
"In terms of a reduction in economic growth, the impact could be anything from two-tenths to upwards of six-tenths and of course it becomes more noticeable with a modest growth rate," Gary Schlossberg, an economist at Wells Capital Management, told CNBC.
"The good news is that with the reconstruction there could be some positive effect further out," he added.
Fuel spilled from a northern New Jersey oil facility shut down by Sandy, according to Motiva, the site's operator. NBC, citing the Coast Guard, said 300,000 gallons (115,000 liters) of diesel had been released and 200 people were working on the cleanup.
(Read More: For Travelers, Sandy's Aggravation Spans Globe)
Brooklynite Matthew Gessler went to Breezy Point, the New York neighborhood where fire destroyed 111 homes, to inspect damage to his mother's house, and was disturbed by what he saw.
"Where the fire happened, you could honestly take that picture and say it was somewhere in the Middle East, like in Afghanistan, and no one would doubt you at all," Gessler said.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said more than a dozen people had been charged with theft and looting in connection with the storm for targeting businesses in the badly flooded Far Rockaway neighborhood of the New York City borough.
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Reuters and AP contributed to this report