Some New Yorkers returned to work Wednesday for the first time since superstorm Sandy unleashed its fury on the city, only to encounter massive traffic gridlock, parking lots without a space to spare and buses bursting with commuters.
The city's streets, especially in midtown, were crippled by jam-packed city buses, trucks, cars and cabs. And after enduring a snail-like commute, drivers faced a new a task -- finding a place to park.
Most encountered parking garages with "Lot Full" or "Sorry, we're full" signs at their entrances. Some garages stationed attendants outside to turn would-be customers away. Double-decker buses running up Third Avenue in midtown were filled to capacity and some bus stops had 20 to 30 people waiting in line.
One of those queued up was Louis Iorio.
As of 3 p.m., he was still trying to find a bus back home.
"Every bus stop they just drive past us," Iorio said. "They're not telling us anything, they just keep sending us to other bus stops around here . . . It's really frustrating. We just want to go home."
To alleviate the mammoth congestion, Mayor Michael Bloomberg Wednesday announced that only cars with at least three occupants will be able to cross into Manhattan via the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro, RFK or Henry Hudson bridges and the Lincoln Tunnel between 6 a.m. and midnight for the remainder of the workweek.
"I know this is a huge inconvenience, but the bottom line is the streets can only handle so much," he said, noting police recruits were to start directing traffic at intersections Wednesday night.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also declared a transportation emergency in which no fares would be charged on the subway, trains and buses through Friday.
Limited subway service will resume Thursday morning on several routes in New York City with shuttle buses operating between Downtown Brooklyn and midtown Manhattan, but no trains will run below 42nd Street because of continuing power outages, said Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joseph Lhota. The MTA could give no timetable for the resumption of full service.
The storm also forced evacuations from health care facilities Wednesday: four of 17 were still under way, while Bellevue Hospital Center said it would evacuate its remaining 500 patients after finding more damage.
Bloomberg, in a briefing Wednesday at City Hall, said flooded East River tunnels were unlikely to reopen before next week. Modified East River ferry service would resume at 7 a.m. Thursday.
It's all part of the city's attempt to recover from Sandy, which brought record high storm surges, devastating winds and torrential rains that killed at least 28 people. The bulk of the fatalities, 14, were in Staten Island, with nine in Queens, three in Manhattan, and two in Brooklyn, according to NYPD data.
Citywide, about 643,000 people remained without power, about 230,000 of them in Manhattan, the mayor said, with full restoration to take days.
In Breezy Point, Queens, where 111 homes were destroyed in a fire and two dozen more were ruined by floods and winds, residents spent Wednesday picking through wreckage.
Stephanie Jones had a neighbor with a crowbar help her break into the collapsed ruins of the home where she had lived all but one of her 41 years.
Ten minutes later, she emerged through the same window she had entered, carrying a clump of soaked $50 bills and three urns full of dog ashes.
"I know it's crazy," said a weeping Jones, "but I don't have any kids, and my dogs are the most important thing in my life."
Bloomberg also said the dangling crane atop a 90-story luxury building on West 57th Street was declared safe by city inspectors, with removal plans in the works. However, the area around it will remain evacuated for safety reasons until at least the weekend.
And Broadway was scheduled to resume all shows Thursday.
Schools are out for the rest of the week, but school staff must report Friday. Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said 200 school buildings were impacted by the storm and more time is needed before students can get back in the classroom.