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In recovering from Superstorm Sandy, a setback for every triumph

By Edith Honan and Hilary Russ

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The road to recovery can be measured in exclamations, some of execration, some of joy.

"It's like a living hell," said Latoya Miller, 29, of Red Hook, one of the New York neighborhoods submerged by the rising sea during Superstorm Sandy. "If it wasn't for the people giving out food and blankets, I don't know what we would do. There'd be a riot out here."

When it comes to what went right, what went wrong and what remains to be done, disaster victims are keeping score for the authorities, and President Barack Obama may receive a progress report first hand when he visits New York City's devastated coastline on Thursday.

"Let there be lights! Lord Jesus! Sixteen days without lights," whooped Blanca Martin, 41, performing a victory dance on Tuesday when the lights finally came back on at her public housing in Coney Island.

The results to date show tens of thousands of homeless or displaced, more still without power. Tonnes of debris piling up in the streets. A fuel supply chain still disrupted, the Red Cross under fire and parts of the transport system under severe strain.

At least 120 people died.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated the storm caused $50 billion in damage and economic loss, $33 billion of that in the state, setting up the next conflict. Who will pay?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is meant to reimburse some victims and local governments for damage but only has about $8.1 billion available, meaning the U.S. Congress would have to appropriate more money at a time when much of the talk is of fiscal restraint in Washington.

The gigantic storm - a hurricane nearly 1,000 miles wide that combined with another storm system and came ashore with high tide under a full moon - brought a record seawater surge that inundated lower Manhattan, rearranged the New Jersey shore and Long Island, and tore up neighborhoods in far-flung areas of New York City's outer boroughs.

"I think the shore will look OK next summer, but it won't look the same," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said of the Jersey Shore, a major tourist destination.

Some of the damaged areas were insular beach communities such as New York's Breezy Point that were content to be detached from the outside world - until disaster struck. Some 111 homes there burned to the ground.

Others, such as parts of the Rockaways, were just poor, where the working class start their long-distance commute.

CLUMSY UNDER PRESSURE

The storm has claimed other casualties, such as the New York City Marathon, scheduled for November 4 but canceled when officials sustained withering public criticism for diverting resources to such an event when masses of people were suffering.

At least two officials lost their jobs. The chief operating officer of the state-owned utility Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) quit under fire for the company's slow response in restoring power, and Cuomo fired his emergency management chief for using state workers to clear a tree from his driveway.

The stresses also weighed on the relationships of top officials. Joseph Lhota, chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), apologized to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg after being quoted in the New York Times saying Bloomberg had predicted "like an idiot" that a flooded vehicle tunnel would soon reopen.

Politicians have praised the tireless effort of rescue workers and civil servants who have saved lives and restored battered infrastructure. For example the MTA partially restored service on the city's 108-year-old subway system three days after the storm, even though seven tunnels under the East River filled with water.

"They brought all of the transportation systems back into operation so fast. The damage was really very, very big. It was unprecedented," said Mysore Nagaraja, former president of the MTA's Capital Construction Company. "To really get the systems back on again was a great feat."

Each success story has a flip side.

New Jersey Transit lagged for days in restoring service, creating hours-long waits for commuters to board buses after the storm impacted 25 percent of its rail cars. The system is still far from normal.

PATH, another commuter rail that crosses the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, remains less than completely operational.

UNBEARABLE

Consolidated Edison, the power utility for New York City and its Westchester County suburb, restored power to about 1 million customers who lost electricity in Sandy and a snow storm that struck 10 days later, but not to 16,300 customers in flooded portions of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island where homeowners and building managers needed to find contractors to repair, test and certify damaged equipment.

Others yet to come back include skyscrapers in the Wall Street district of Manhattan, the symbolic pulse of the economy. Throughout the historic neighborhood, buildings remain closed or operate on generators. Many companies, including major law firms, have had to find alternative premises.

In the outer boroughs, people may remain in the cold and dark for weeks or even months more because they cannot find or afford an electrician.

Many drivers felt frustrated upon waiting hours for gasoline after the storm disrupted the fuel supply chain. The lines have receded, but the storm exposed vulnerabilities, such as the Gulf Oil terminal in Linden, New Jersey, where Sandy destroyed the interior workspace, halting shipments to filling stations.

A lack of generators at many filling stations meant that even if they had gas they couldn't pump it.

NO POWER TO THE PROJECTS

Even the American Red Cross, one of the country's most venerated charities, has come under criticism for what some victims found to be a disappointing performance.

Only now, more than two weeks after the storm, do some of the worst-hit neighborhoods appear to be inching back to life after losing power, heat and hot water.

On Tuesday night, Bloomberg's office announced power had been restored to all residential high rises controlled by the New York City Housing Authority, an agency that houses the city's poor. Still, 81 public housing buildings lacked heat as of Wednesday night, leaving 15,743 people in the cold.

By contrast, most privately owned high-rises that lost electricity and heat had it all back on more than a week ago.

"No power and it is freezing!" said Diane Gregg, 55, who lives at a Red Hook building without power.

"You can't sleep. It's too cold," said her son, Jason Smith, 32.

Bloomberg estimated up to 40,000 New Yorkers may be homeless, leading to an emergency meeting of city, state and federal officials last week about the resulting housing crisis.

Talk inevitably will turn to larger infrastructure projects designed to keep the sea at bay, said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York.

"I have no objection to having a long-term plan that will help the city of New York, but ... how do you talk about putting up (sea) walls when people in Breezy Point are looking at burned-out buildings," Spinola said. "The first thing that has to be done is to care for the people that have been devastated."

(Additional reporting by Ilaina Jonas, Chris Francescani, Joshua Schneyer, Ian Simpson and Beth Pinsker Gladstone; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Martin Howell and Jim Loney)

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