Emergency carpool rules meant to speed traffic into Manhattan will continue Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said -- even though police checkpoints became commuter chokepoints Thursday.

The crawling commute added to New Yorkers' frustrations with city and utility officials as they coped with damage left by superstorm Sandy.

The death toll rose to 38, including recovery of the bodies of brothers, 2 and 4 years old, who were ripped from their mother's grasp by Sandy's floodwaters on Staten Island Monday night.

A gas shortage, delayed delivery of promised food and water supplies, water-damaged homes and a prolonged lack of power put people on edge. About 534,000 Con Edison customers were still without electricity Thursday.

"People are desperate," said Beatrice Rivera, a Chinatown resident who waded through knee-deep water Thursday to get to a fire hydrant to wash clothes. Other neighbors outside her blacked-out building filled water buckets there.

She said some people were charging $5 to charge cellphones from their cars.

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For six hours, Rivera and hundreds of other people waited on line for packaged meals and bottled water to be distributed by National Guard and the Salvation Army at the Alfred E. Smith playground on the Lower East Side. The Smith Houses, which face the East River, were flooded up to the first floor and some parts of the second floor.

"I need food -- they are taking forever," said Raul Diaz, 20. The truckload of food and water showed up at 7 p.m.

Bloomberg said city workers and volunteers would provide food, water and other necessities to those stranded, for example, in high-rise buildings without working elevators.

"People are transitioning from shock to real world problems: How do you get water? How do you get food?" he said at a City Hall briefing.

On the commuting woes, Bloomberg urged people to make do with the hobbled mass-transit system.

Subway and bus riders will travel free through Friday -- but because of storm damage, subways weren't running yet south of 34th Street or between downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. East River ferry service will soon return on a limited schedule, and the Staten Island Ferry will be running in a day or two, he said.

Emergency HOV rules caused backups for miles for drivers headed toward Manhattan. A police checkpoint for the RFK-Triborough Bridge brought Grand Central Parkway traffic to a near-standstill that stretched back beyond LaGuardia Airport to Citi Field.

Bloomberg acknowledged that there were mistakes made; for example, on the George Washington Bridge when officers improperly enforced the three-person carpool requirement for vehicles coming from New Jersey to Manhattan.

"I'm sorry, they'll fix it," Bloomberg said at a City Hall briefing. "If we had people in wrong places, it was the first day getting it going. Hopefully it will be better tomorrow."

Faring better than drivers were those who took buses and trains into Manhattan.

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"For me it's very good for today," Claudia Flinch, 43, of the Bronx, said. "I'm on the 6 train, so I took it straight down."

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said looting had been minimal, with 18 people arrested at a Key Food store on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island, and two charged with burglary in Staten Island. Bloomberg also said, "I don't think we've had a murder in two or three days." John Cela, a manager of a deli on 36th Street, said he's seen a change for the better in food-supply deliveries since superstorm Sandy hit on Sunday.

"The last two days have been a problem but it's better now," Cela said. "The trucks are coming in normally now."

Some people waited in lines Thursday with plastic jugs to get gasoline for either their vehicles or their portable generators to run some of the lights in some of the smaller shops and delis.

Joe Barri, 59, a West Village resident who typically commutes by car to New Jersey, said, "Can't find any gas stations that have gasoline . . . all over Manhattan; I started out at three o'clock this morning. . . And the ones that are open have lines that are over a mile long."

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Along Park Avenue, National Guard trucks lined up for many blocks amid clusters of guardsmen carrying things in and out of the local armory or headed to one assignment or another on foot.

Shuttle buses lined up both around Brooklyn's Barclay's Center and the Manhattan intersection of 57th Street and Lexington Avenue. Both intersections had lines of people wrapped around the block. Elsewhere, people on foot and on mass transit were more sparse than usual.Garages in midtown were not very busy, according to workers at three different locations, where there were visible gaps amid the parked cars. The lack of gasoline caused the drop in business, garage workers said.

Lower Manhattan and the Financial District were still quiet, with the majority of coffee shops, restaurants and pushcarts remaining closed.

Thousands of office workers and construction workers stayed home, as the usual lunch-hour hustle was almost at a standstill with only residents venturing out for meal.

Maurice Nwikpo-Oppong, 40, who lives in Staten Island, took a bus from New Dorp into lower Manhattan in hopes of catching a second bus to his parents' home in the Bronx. There, he hoped to find power and a hot shower and to see his parents.

"It took two and half hours to get into Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel," said Nwikpo-Oppong, who stood first in line at the Church Street bus stop. "It's been an hour so far and look at all the people now," he said, pointing to about 50 people in line behind him.

Discouraged and weary, he said he planned to forget about catching a bus and would walk to 42nd Street where there were more transit options.