Marathon cancelled as death toll and fuel shortages ravage New York

Boats pushed up by Hurricane Sandy lie against residences near a marina in the Staten Island borough of New York City. Hundreds of thousands of people in Staten Island remained without electricity in Staten Island, although power was restored Friday to parts of lower Manhatten. (John Moore, AFP)

Boats pushed up by Hurricane Sandy lie against residences near a marina in the Staten Island borough of New York City. Hundreds of thousands of people in Staten Island remained without electricity in Staten Island, although power was restored Friday to parts of lower Manhatten. (John Moore, AFP)

The famed New York marathon slated for Sunday has been cancelled in the face of a rising death toll, crippled city infrastructure and widespread fuel shortages inflicted by Hurricane Sandy.

Even though electricity finally returned to swaths of the Big Apple, parts of the city continued to struggle to recover from the devastation that killed at least 95 people in 15 states and in Canada.

The toll in New York City alone rose to 41 and at least 14 died in neighboring New Jersey, where searches of isolated areas are ongoing.

There was a glimmer of good news as power returned to 90 000 customers in Manhattan, amounting to almost half of the residences still left in the dark since Sandy struck.

People in the streets of lower Manhattan cheered as the lights gradually came back on. Full power was expected to return to the city's richest and most densely populated borough over the weekend.

However, widespread outages continued in other parts of the city, as well as in New Jersey. Tensions were laid bare as fights erupted in huge queues at the few gas stations still functioning, with some cities in the New York region rationing fuel even for emergency services.

One man in New York's Queens borough who tried to drive his BMW vehicle ahead of others in line was charged with pulling a gun on another driver.

Amid the city's struggles, mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed his earlier position that the city's marathon should go ahead as a sign of resilience.

He had been under growing pressure from critics who said the marathon would divert badly needed police and other resources.

"The marathon has always brought our city together and inspired us with stories of courage and determination.
We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it," he said in a surprise statement.

The cancelation of the 40-year-old event was cheered by New Yorkers who organised a social media campaign accusing the authorities of being out of touch.

Moving on
Mary Wittenberg, president of the New York Road Runners organising group, was disappointed but philosophical about the turn of events.

"The best thing for New York and the best thing for the marathon for the future is unfortunately to move on," Wittenberg said. "This isn't the year or the time to run it."

The marathon typically brings the city $340-million, but much of that would have been lost, organisers said, because as many as 10 000 of the field of nearly 45 000 runners would not have come this year because of the damage.

More pressing was finding vehicle fuel as the biggest US city attempts to return to life.

Many stations have gasoline but no electricity to power the pumps and handle payments. Some station owners refuse to open until police are on guard.

At Essex County in New Jersey, authorities were limiting even police and fire vehicles to half a tank. Some drivers said they waited up to 10 hours to fill up.

The American Automobile Association estimates that 60% of gas stations in New Jersey and 70% in New York's Long Island are closed. Authorities say 13 of the 34 fuel terminals around New York have no power.

Suffering Manhattan commuters are struggling with "significantly" fewer taxis, according to the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission.

The government, meanwhile, brought in fuel from other states and reopened ports to get supplies moving.

According to The New York Times, the White House has also instructed the Defense Department to send 90.8-million litres of fuel to the region and lifting restrictions on deliveries by foreign-flagged ships.

It authorised the department to hire hundreds of trucks that will be used to deliver 45.4-million litres each of gasoline and diesel fuel, mostly from commercial suppliers, to staging areas in New Jersey, the newspaper said.

Deftly handled the challenges
On Saturday, President Barack Obama reassured millions of affected Americans that the country will be there to help them.

"We're Americans," he said in his radio and Internet address. "When times are tough, we're tougher. We put others first. We go that extra mile. We open our hearts and our homes to one another, as one American family. We recover, we rebuild, we come back stronger – and together we will do that once more."

Despite progress in Manhattan, the lack of electricity also continued to affect tens of thousands of homeowners.

Some areas of New York may have to wait until November 11 before getting power back.

National Guard troops handed out 290 000 meals and 500 000 bottles of water in the first day of an emergency aid operation in New York, Bloomberg said. Hundreds also queued for free ice to preserve food given out in Union Square.

Bloomberg has deftly handled the challenges of responding to one of the most devastating storms to hit the United States, but the marathon controversy could put a dent in his standing.

Pressure began in petitions on Twitter and other social networks, before politicians joined in.

Christine Quinn, the city council speaker and close Bloomberg ally widely tipped to succeed him, said she would not have given the go-ahead.

"If they take one first responder from Staten Island to cover this marathon I will scream. We have people with no homes and no hope right now," tweeted James Oddo, a city councilperson for one of the New York districts worst hit by the storm.

Bloomberg defended his initial decision earlier, saying New York pushed on with the marathon after the September 11 2001 attacks and had to do so again.

But Staten Island community leaders have complained bitterly that they have been forgotten as aid pours into other districts. At least 18 people died on Staten Island, where huge waves swept away homes. – Sapa-AFP.

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