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After Sandy, a desperate search for power

As New York slowly comes back to life, it's electrical power that divides the haves and have-nots. Gridlock also remains a concern, but subway service is slowly beginning to resume and the New York Marathon is still slated to go forward. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

NEW YORK -- Days after the country’s most densely populated region was brought to its knees by Superstorm Sandy, those without power were going to desperate lengths to find it.

For graphic designer Robert Romiti, that meant a three-mile march up Lower Manhattan in search of electricity to charge his iPhone. Romiti told NBC News he had walked from his apartment on South Street to the corner of 36th Street and Fifth Avenue, where a condominium tower had put out several surge protectors for passers-by. About 20 people were huddled around it.

Romiti said he’d found a similarly improvised power station six blocks to the south – but it was fully occupied.

Some people were searching for even more juice. Widespread power outages, combined with forecasts of falling temperatures and ongoing uncertainty about when power would be restored, sparked a surge in demand for home power generators. Online sites recorded most models as “out of stock” and home centers sold out shipments shortly after they arrived. Phone lines to dealers of permanent standby generators were jammed. Home center stores turned away customers looking for portable models.

A Home Depot in Port Chester, N.Y. sold 190 units within hours on Wednesday, according to a store employee. At another location in Nyack, N.Y., a cluster of customers gathered in the darkened store based on word that a truck was en route with more generators. A store employee created an impromptu waiting list by handing out slips of paper with hand-written numbers and explaining the rules: “You can’t leave and come back,” she told a new arrival. “You have to be here when your number is called.”

Across the region, more than 6 million people were without power, and many were driving miles and miles to find it.

At a Lukoil gas station in Bloomfield, N.J., about 40 cars lined up for gas Wednesday afternoon. Cesar Baez and a friend had tried five stations from Newark to Union before reaching the station, where they had already waited 90 minutes before nearing the entrance. In nearby Union, he had waited two hours before reaching the pump, only to be told the station was rationing. Baez wanted to fill his BMW to drive to Boston. “We’re trying to get out of town,” he said. Baez did not gas up before the storm. “That was an error,” he said.

After days without power, residents of lower Manhattan have begun searching for new ways to charge their devices, even if it means standing out in the cold.

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Also in line were Eileen and Michael Minogue, from Butler, N.J., about 20 miles northwest of Bloomfield. This was their first stop because none of the stations in Butler had gas. The Minogues had been waiting 40 minutes for gas for their SUV and a generator they were using to power their home. The Minogues had been without power since Monday and had been told it wouldn’t be back until at least Monday. They were going through about two gallons of gas a day to run their generator for about 4 or 5 hours a day, mostly for their refrigerator.

Jonathan Sanger / NBC News

New Yorkers charge their cell phones on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on Wednesday.

For some, the scenes harken back to the fuel-shortages of the 1970s.

“Right now, there is a shortage of gas in the area because of the extraordinary demand of the few places that have electricity,” AAA Spokesperson Chris McBride told NBC News. “Without power, even if they do have reserve gas in their storage tanks, they can’t pump it out.”

On one side of an Exxon station in Belleville, N.J., cars stretched down the street, snarling traffic. On the other, people stood in line with gas cans in hand, grabbing as much fuel as they could for cars and generators. 

One man from Montclair, N.J., said his girlfriend's car ran out of fuel in line at another Exxon station. He offered money to people for their empty gas cans, hoping to carry away as much fuel as possible, but he didn't have any takers. 

The station's owner said the pumps would run out of fuel around 8 p.m. He said Exxon had a new shipment of gas on the way, but that it wouldn't be in time to help anyone tonight.

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John Makely / NBC News

Stephanie Sikaris, of Union, N.J., waits in line with others at an Exxon station on Route 22 to fill up her gas containers to feed the generator that she bought Monday from Home Depot.

Improvised charging stations
New York City's power company, Consolidated Edison Inc., said Wednesday that it had restored power to more than 160,000 of the 930,000 customers left in the dark by Hurricane Sandy. Con Ed estimated Tuesday that those served by underground electric equipment in Manhattan and Brooklyn should have their power restored within four days. 

Even without power, New Yorkers found creative ways to charge their phones and devices. 

At 10th Street and Avenue C, where Bill DiPaola said he saw cars floating in flood waters just a day ago, some two dozen people were huddled around a two-person bike hooked up to a generator that was charging tens of phones. DiPaola, founder of the not-yet-open Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces, said he had used the bike earlier to power a pump to drain the basement. He hoped he’d still be able to open the museum as planned on Nov. 17. 

Outside, two women were pedaling furiously; they had volunteered to do so in exchange for getting to charge their phones. Audrey Conway, a fashion school student whose apartment is without power or running water, said pedaling this bike was harder than the one she rides every day.

“I’m happy I can do this,” Conway said, slightly out of breath. “Better than sitting in my apartment.” 

Jonathan Sanger / NBC News

New Yorkers found unique ways to work with limited electricity in New York on Wednesday.

At the main branch of the Montclair Public Library, where a line formed before its 10 a.m. opening, several hundred people were using every available outlet to charge computers and cellphones, with some sprawled on floors near electrical plugs. Library staffers opened an auditorium, additional conference rooms and arranged for a branch building to open Wednesday to accommodate townspeople without electricity.

“We’re trying our best to serve the public the best we can,” said library supervisor Dawn Quinn.

Jennifer Dwyer found a desk space at the library to work. “I was here earlier but the Wifi was overwhelmed so I had to buy my own hot spot,” a battery-powered Internet connection, for her computer. Dwyer had lost power Monday night. “I’m like everyone else here,” she said of her hunt for electrical power. “At least it’s not cold.”

Driving around in a mobile hotspot of their own creation, Daymion Mardel, 38, and Angel Hernandez, 36, were out in lower Manhattan to help people charge their phones out of their car. The two photographers, who live in Harlem, where they actually do have power, set up a solar panel where they could plug in about 40 phones.

“We’re just trying to help in the small ways we can,” Mardel told NBC News. “Some people donate money, we had the resources to do this. We know how important it is for people to have mobile phones to keep in touch.”  

Brendan Mcdermid / Reuters

People congregate in front of a building that still has wireless Internet access in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York on Tuesday.

NBC News' John Schoen, Jane Weaver, Becky Bratu, Rosa Golijan and Jason White contributed to this report. 

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