The painful reality of superstorm Sandy's destruction sank in Wednesday as millions of residents on battered Long Island and throughout the metropolitan region began to claw their way back to a semblance of everyday life.
For the first time since Sandy struck Monday night, there were glimmers of a return to what used to be routine. Kennedy Airport in Queens and Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma resumed flights Wednesday morning, and the Long Island Rail Road and the New York City subway system were set to offer limited service starting with Thursday morning's rush hour.
But authorities and residents alike got their fullest views yet of the freakish storm's devastation. As people ventured back to their homes, many for the first time since evacuating ahead of hurricane-force winds and ferocious tidal surges, the portrait of a young mother in a flooded Lindenhurst neighborhood was grimly universal.
"Why?" she sobbed, dropping to her knees outside her home on Shore Road. "Why did this have to happen?"
Two friends helped her walk as she picked her way, crying and in a daze, around the ruined property, holding a small red ball that her daughter once had played with inside the home. A reporter did not intrude to ask her name. "It's all gone," she said. "Everything we built."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), after flying over the Island and the city, said, "This is one of the biggest disasters to ever strike this state or, even, this country. It is a national disaster and needs to be treated that way."
The comeback from disaster -- with power outages expected to last a week or more, and new troubles cropping up -- held significant challenges:
Nassau faces a potential public health emergency due to raw sewage from the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant in East Rockaway, which serves 40 percent of the county's residents. The plant was shut down after a tidal surge breached the facility, and officials urged the public to conserve water to take pressure off the system and reduce the danger of backups.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, noting traffic is jamming roads, declared a transportation emergency for the stricken metropolitan region, saying people can ride free on trains, subways and buses Thursday and Friday. "We hope it encourages people to take mass transit," he said.
With more commuters driving into Manhattan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned private cars with fewer than three people from entering Manhattan over East River bridges between 6 a.m. and midnight today and tomorrow.
The American Red Cross announced the opening on Thursday of six outdoor mobile feeding stations on the Island -- three in Nassau and three in Suffolk -- that will offer lunch and dinner. More will open in coming days, Red Cross spokesman Jeremy Ryan said.
Of LIPA's 1.1 million customers, more than 790,000 remained without power as of 12:11 a.m. Thursday. The high was 945,000 right after the storm. The previous record was 750,000 during Hurricane Gloria in 1985.
Motorists waited in long lines at gas stations to get fuel for vehicles and generators. Many stations were closed because they lacked electricity. Schumer said the Island was beginning to suffer a gasoline shortage, in part because the Coast Guard was not letting ships into local ports. That should happen Thursday, with more gas getting to stations for the weekend.
Most schools on both Long Island and in New York City remained closed Wednesday, and more than 100 Long Island districts were to be closed Thursday for an unprecedented fourth consecutive day due to weather. It appeared many on the Island would stay shut Friday as well; the city's public schools are closed the rest of the week.
Returning to devastationHundreds of thousands of Long Islanders continued to cope with the impact of the powerful storm, with some returning to their homes for the first time since Sandy struck. Police in Lindenhurst reopened most of the streets south of Montauk Highway Wednesday afternoon for the first time.
Bags of water-damaged trash sat outside many houses, with waterlogged rugs piled on top. Eileen Lee said she's been living on South Bay Street for 38 years and never had any water in her home before. She estimated the water level inside reached 4 feet. "Everything is just a disaster here," she said. "The water, the trees down. It's sad."
In Freeport, the storm caused home heating oil tanks to spill and float away, creating a fire hazard, village spokeswoman Sophia Johnson said. The village is working with National Grid to fix the problem.
President Barack Obama Wednesday toured devastated areas of the New Jersey shoreline, where Sandy made landfall, with Gov. Chris Christie.
"We are going to be here for the long haul," the president said, vowing "all-hands-on-deck" response and assistance.
More repair crews to arrive
Cuomo, who flew over Long Island with other officials, announced that 1,900 more emergency repair workers from upstate and other states were arriving in New York, sharply increasing the nearly 1,268 workers that LIPA already employed or recruited.
LIPA said it is working on fixing the backbone of its system first -- transmission lines to substations, emergency service systems and critical facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes. It has not yet fully begun sending trucks to neighborhoods to cut down trees, replace poles and transformers, replace downed wires and restore service.
"The restoration process is going to take a long time," Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it's two weeks."
Some hospitals, even as they got power back, coped with other problems. Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, which normally has up to 375 patients, was over capacity, with 513 patients and another 27 awaiting admission, chief executive Arthur Gianelli said.
Two days after the superstorm, thousands of toppled trees blocked roads.
"This storm was an equal-opportunity destroyer," Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto said. "It did not discriminate between North Shore and South Shore."