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Nor'easter bears down on Sandy-battered NYC and New Jersey

A nor'easter blustered into New York and New Jersey on Wednesday with rain and wet snow, plunging homes right back into darkness, stopping commuter trains again and inflicting another round of misery on thousands of people still reeling from Superstorm Sandy's blow more than a week ago.

Under ordinary circumstances, a storm of this sort wouldn't be a big deal, but large swaths of the landscape were still an open wound, with the electrical system highly fragile and many of Sandy's victims still mucking out their homes and cars and shivering in the deepening cold.

Exactly as authorities feared, the nor'easter brought down tree limbs and electrical wires, and utilities in New York and New Jersey reported that nearly 50,000 customers who lost power because of Sandy lost it all over again as a result of the nor'easter.

"I know everyone's patience is wearing thin," said John Miksad, senior vice president of electric operations at Consolidated Edison, the chief utility in New York City.

As the nor'easter closed in, thousands of people in low-lying neighborhoods staggered by the superstorm just over a week ago were urged to clear out. Authorities warned that rain and 60 mph gusts in the evening and overnight could topple trees wrenched loose by Sandy and erase some of the hard-won progress made in restoring power to millions of customers.

"I am waiting for the locusts and pestilence next," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said. "We may take a setback in the next 24 hours."

Ahead of the storm, public works crews in New Jersey built up dunes to protect the stripped and battered coast, and new evacuations were ordered in a number of communities already emptied by Sandy. New shelters opened.

In New York City, police went to low-lying neighborhoods with loudspeakers, urging residents to leave. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn't issue mandatory evacuations, and many people stayed behind, some because they feared looting, others because they figured whatever happens couldn't be any worse than what they have gone through already.

"We're petrified," said James Alexander, a resident of the hard-hit Rockaways section of Queens. "It's like a sequel to a horror movie."

All construction in New York City was halted -- a precaution that needed no explanation after a crane collapsed last week in Sandy's high winds and dangled menacingly over the streets of Manhattan. Parks were closed because of the danger of falling trees. A section of the Long Island Expressway was closed in both directions because of icy conditions.

Airlines canceled at least 1,300 U.S. flights in and out of the New York metropolitan area, causing a new round of disruptions that rippled across the country.

The city manager in Long Beach, N.Y., urged the roughly 21,000 people who ignored previous mandatory evacuation orders in the badly damaged barrier-island city to get out.

Forecasters said the nor'easter would bring moderate coastal flooding, with storm surges of about 3 feet possible Wednesday into Thursday -- far less than the 8 to 14 feet Sandy hurled at the region. The storm's winds were expected to be well below Sandy's, which gusted to 90 mph.

By evening, the storm had created a slushy mess in the streets in the metropolitan area. Eight-foot waves crashed on the beaches in New Jersey. The Long Island Rail Road, one of the nation's biggest commuter train systems, suspended all service again after struggling over the past several days to get up and running in Sandy's wake.

The early-afternoon high tide came and went without any reports of serious flooding in New York City, the mayor said. The next high tide was early Thursday. But forecasters said the moment of maximum flood danger may have passed.

Con Ed said that by early evening, the nor'easter knocked out power to at least 11,000 customers, some of whom had just gotten it back. Tens of thousands more were expected to lose power overnight. The Long Island Power Authority said by evening that the number of customers in the dark had risen from 150,000 to more than 198,000.

Similarly, New Jersey utilities reported scattered outages, with some customers complaining that they had just gotten their electricity back in the past two day or two, only to lose it again.

On Staten Island, workers and residents on a washed-out block in Midland Beach continued to pull debris -- old lawn chairs, stuffed animals, a basketball hoop -- from their homes, even as the bad weather blew in.
  Jane Murphy, a nurse, wondered, "How much worse can it get?" as she cleaned the inside of her flooded-out car.

Sandy killed more than 100 people in 10 states, with most of the victims in New York and New Jersey. On Tuesday, the death toll inched higher when a 78-year-old man died of a head injury, suffered when he fell down a wet, sandy stairwell in the dark, authorities said. Long lines persisted at gas stations but were shorter than they were days ago.

At the peak of the outages from Sandy, more than 8.5 million customers lost power. Before the nor'easter hit, that number was down to 675,000, nearly all of them in New Jersey and New York.

The storm could bring repairs to a standstill because of federal safety regulations that prohibit linemen from working in bucket trucks when wind gusts reach 40 mph.

Authorities warned also that trees and limbs broken or weakened by Sandy could fall and that even where repairs have been made, the electrical system is fragile, with some substations fed by only a single power line instead of several.

The nor'easter cut a feed to a substation briefly Wednesday night, knocking out power to 8,000 customers around East Brunswick, N.J.

On Wednesday, a state official said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo fired his emergency management director for diverting crews to remove a tree from his driveway during Superstorm Sandy.