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New York imposes gas rationing to fight hoarding, panic

Richard Drew / AP

A man carries gas cans at a gasoline station in New York as a police officer in the background directs cars to pumps on Friday morning.

Updated at 2 p.m. ET -- NEW YORK -- New York drivers woke up Friday to the first widespread gas rationing since the fuel crisis of the 1970s, as the Northeast struggles to recover from the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and a subsequent snowstorm.

Officials said the gas rationing was imposed because something had to be done to ease the long waits for fuel, which they say has caused panic-buying and hoarding.

Police officers were assigned to gas stations to enforce the new system, beginning their shifts at 5 a.m. in Long Island and 6 a.m. in New York City.

"This is designed to let everybody have a fair chance, so the lines aren't too oppressive and that we can get through this," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. Officers would also make sure people "don't get pushy in line," Bloomberg told WOR-AM radio on Friday morning.

The nor'easter brought gusting winds, rain and snow on Wednesday and early Thursday before it moved on. Snow blanketed several states from New York to New England and stymied recovery efforts from Sandy as additional storm-weakened trees snapped and more power lines came down.

In New Jersey, after a difficult commute Thursday night that saw heavily armed police trying to quiet crowds at area bus and train stations, authorities added free buses and ferries Friday to try and ease commutes that have been four and five times longer than normal all week. Meanwhile, temporary ferry service will be offered from the Rockaways to Manhattan while the area's subway service is suspended.

New York City’s program of gas rationing is modeled on one New Jersey implemented last week -- allowing drivers to fill up on alternating days depending on their license plate number -- that has reduced lines dramatically. On Thursday, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., told reporters he plans to re-evaluate over the weekend whether New Jersey still needs to continue its gas rationing system, reported NJ.com.

"The last two days, I've barely seen any fuel lines anymore," Christie said. "There's order, there's easy access to gas."

In New York, however, Bloomberg indicated that the city had little choice but to implement the policy.

"It now appears there will be shortages for possibly another couple weeks," Bloomberg said, later adding, "If you think about it, it's not any great imposition once you get used to it."

Bloomberg said only a quarter of the city's gas stations were open. Some were closed because they were out of power, others because they have been unable to get fuel from terminals and storage tanks that cannot unload their cargoes.

Full NBCNews.com coverage of Sandy's aftermath

Gas will be available to drivers with license-plate numbers ending in an odd number or a letter on Friday. On Saturday, drivers with license plates that end in even numbers or zero can fuel up.

Buses, taxes and limousines, commercial vehicles and emergency vehicles are exempt from the plan, as are people carrying portable gas cans. Vanity plates that do not have numbers are considered odd-numbered plates. Out-of-state drivers are also subject to the system.

But, he added, with some evidence that it's made the lines for gas shorter in New Jersey, the system was worth a try.

New Yorkers, never known for holding their tongues, let their exasperation with the bad weather show.

"Kick in the gas," the New York Post blared in a headline on its website, a day after its print newspaper hit the streets with the cover headline, "God hates us!"

Anger at utilities
Hundreds of thousands of utility customers, mostly in New York and New Jersey, are still waiting for their electricity to come back on -- and some are losing patience, demanding investigations of utilities they say are not working fast enough.  

An angry New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined the calls for an investigation on Thursday, ripping the utilities as unprepared and badly managed.

"It's unacceptable the longer it goes on because the longer it goes on, people's suffering is worse," he said.

But New Jersey Gov. Christie praised his state’s utilities, saying he expects all of his state to have power back by early Sunday.

The utilities have said they are dealing with damage unprecedented in its scope and are doing the best they can.

There is no denying the magnitude of what they have done: At the peak, more than 8.5 million homes and businesses across 21 states lost power during Sandy. Early Friday, there were more than 288,000 outages in New York and about 273,000 in New Jersey.

Some people have lived for days in the dark in temperatures near freezing.

"We lost power last week, just got it back for a day or two, and now we lost it again," said John Monticello of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. "Every day it's the same now: turn on the gas burner for heat. Instant coffee. Use the iPad to find out what's going on in the rest of the world."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. 

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A snowstorm hits the Northeast as residents are still struggling to pick up the pieces after Superstorm Sandy.