Twenty-four hours after millions on the East Coast awoke to their first glimpse of the devastation from monster storm Sandy, they now are left to ask: What do I do now?
Residents of the areas pummeled by Sandy began to look towards rebuilding efforts Wednesday, though many remain without power, neighborhoods remain strewn with debris and many transportation systems remain closed. At least 72 people have been reported dead as a result of the storm, which one economic firm predicted caused up $20 billion in damage.
New York City buses resumed their schedule and the New York Stock Exchange reopened its trading floor Wednesday, but it became clear that restoring the region to some semblance of normalcy could take days or considerably longer for communities that were the hardest hit.
"We will get through the days ahead by doing what we always do in tough times — by standing together, shoulder to shoulder, ready to help a neighbor, comfort a stranger and get the city we love back on its feet," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
Sandy had left at least 57 people dead along the Atlantic Coast as of midday Wednesday, and had destroyed beachfront homes and boardwalks from the mid-Atlantic states to southern New England. The storm later moved across Pennsylvania on a predicted path toward New York state and Canada.
"The biggest problem is not the first few days but the coming months."
As of early Wednesday, roughly 6.5 million homes and businesses were still without power, including 4 million in New York and New Jersey. Electricity was out as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as the Carolinas. More than 8.2 million lost electricity at the height of the disaster.
Temperatures were expected to dip into the 30s toward the end of the week in coastal communities in New York and Connecticut along Long Island Sound — where 90 percent of residents were still without power — and along the Jersey shore. The prospect of millions of families having no power or heat in freezing temperatures prompted utilities to send out an SOS to crews from power companies all over the country.
Forecasting firm IHS Global Insight predicted Tuesday the storm will end up causing about $20 billion in damage and $10 billion to $30 billion in lost business. Another firm, AIR Worldwide, estimated losses up to $15 billion — big numbers probably offset by reconstruction and repairs that will contribute to longer-term growth.
"The biggest problem is not the first few days but the coming months," said Alan Rubin, an expert in natural disaster recovery.
But, amid the despair, talk of recovery was already beginning.
"It's heartbreaking after being here 37 years," Barry Prezioso of Point Pleasant, N.J., said as he returned to his house in the beachfront community to survey the damage. "You see your home demolished like this, it's tough. But nobody got hurt and the upstairs is still livable, so we can still live upstairs and clean this out. I'm sure there's people that had worse. I feel kind of lucky."
Much of the initial recovery efforts focused on New York City, the region's economic heart. Bloomberg said it could take four or five days before the subway, which suffered the worst damage in its 108-year history, is running again. All 10 of the tunnels that carry commuters under the East River were flooded. But high water prevented inspectors from immediately assessing damage to key equipment, raising the possibility that the nation's largest city could endure an extended shutdown of the system that 5 million people count on to get to work and school each day. The chairman of the state agency that runs the subway, Joseph Lhota, said service might have to resume piecemeal, and experts said the cost of the repairs could be staggering.
Power company Consolidated Edison said it would be four days before the last of the 337,000 customers in Manhattan and Brooklyn who lost power have electricity again and it could take a week to restore outages in the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and Westchester County. Floodwater led to explosions that disabled a power substation Monday night, contributing to the outages.
Surveying the widespread damage, it was clear much of the recovery and rebuilding will take far longer.
When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stopped in Belmar, N.J., during a tour of the devastation, one woman wept openly and 42-year-old Walter Patrickis told him, "Governor, I lost everything."
Christie, who called the shore damage "unthinkable," said a full recovery would take months, at least, and it would likely be a week or more before power is restored to everyone who lost it.
"Now we've got a big task ahead of us that we have to do together. This is the kind of thing New Jerseyans are built for," he said. President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit the state Wednesday to inspect the storm damage.
By sundown Tuesday, however, announcements from officials and scenes on the streets signaled that New York and nearby towns were edging toward a semblance of routine.
First came the reopening of highways in Connecticut and bridges across the Hudson and East rivers, although the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan, and the Holland Tunnel, between New York and New Jersey, remained closed.
A limited number of the white and blue buses that crisscross New York's grid returned Tuesday evening to Broadway and other thoroughfares on a reduced schedule — but free of charge. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he hoped there would be full service by Wednesday. Still, school was canceled for a third straight day Wednesday in the city, where many students rely on buses and subways to reach classrooms.
In one bit of good news, officials announced that John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark International Airport in New Jersey reopened at 7 a.m. Wednesday with limited service. New York's LaGuardia Airport, however, remains closed.
The New York Stock Exchange was again silent Tuesday — the first weather-related, two-day closure since 1888 — but trading was scheduled to resume Wednesday morning with Bloomberg ringing the opening bell.
Amtrak also laid out plans to resume some runs in the Northeast on Wednesday, with modified service between Newark, N.J., and points south. That includes restoring Virginia service to Lynchburg, Richmond and Newport News, Keystone trains in Pennsylvania, and Downeaster service between Boston and Portland, Maine.
But flooding continues to prevent service to and from New York's Penn Station. Amtrak said the amount of water in train tunnels under the Hudson and East rivers is unprecedented. There will be no Northeast Regional service between New York and Boston and no Acela Express service for the entire length of the Northeast Corridor. No date has been set for when it might resume.
But even with the return of some transportation and plans to reopen schools and businesses, the damage and pain inflicted by Sandy continued to unfold, confirming the challenge posed by rebuilding.
In New Jersey, amusement rides that once crowned a pier in Seaside Heights were dumped into the ocean, some homes were smashed, and others were partially buried in sand.
Farther north in Hoboken, across the Hudson from Manhattan, New Jersey National Guard troops arrived Tuesday night with high-wheeled vehicles to reach thousands of flood victims stuck in their homes. They arrived to find a town with live wires dangling in the floodwaters that Mayor Dawn Zimmer said were rapidly mixing with sewage. At nightfall, the city turned almost completely dark.
About 2.1 million homes and businesses remained without power across the state late Tuesday. When Tropical Storm Irene struck last year, it took more than a week to restore power everywhere. The state's largest utility, PSE&G, said it was trying to dry out substations it had to shut down.
Outages in the state's two largest cities, Newark and Jersey City, left traffic signals dark, resulting in numerous fender-benders at intersections where police were not directing traffic. And in one Jersey City supermarket, there were long lines to get bread and a spot at an outlet to charge cellphones.
Trees and power lines were down in every corner of the state. Schools and state government offices were closed for a second day, and many called off classes for Wednesday, too. The governor said the PATH trains connecting northern New Jersey with Manhattan would be out of service for at least seven to 10 days because of flooding. All the New Jersey Transit rail lines were damaged, he said, and it was not clear when the rail lines would be able to open.
In Connecticut, some residents of Fairfield returned home in kayaks and canoes to inspect widespread damage left by retreating floodwaters that kept other homeowners at bay.
"The uncertainty is the worst," said Jessica Levitt, who was told it could be a week before she can enter her house. "Even if we had damage, you just want to be able to do something. We can't even get started."
The storm caused irreparable damage to homes in East Haven, Milford and other shore towns. Still, many were grateful the storm did not deliver a bigger blow, considering the havoc wrought in New York City and New Jersey.
"I feel like we are blessed," said Bertha Weismann, whose garage was flooded in Bridgeport. "It could have been worse."
And in New York, residents of the flooded beachfront neighborhood of Breezy Point in returned home to find fire had taken everything the water had not. A huge blaze destroyed perhaps 100 homes in the close-knit community where many had stayed behind despite being told to evacuate.
John Frawley, 57, acknowledged the mistake. Frawley, who lived about five houses from the fire's edge, said he spent the night terrified "not knowing if the fire was going to jump the boulevard and come up to my house."
"I stayed up all night," he said. "The screams. The fire. It was horrifying."
There were still only hints of the economic impact of the storm.
Some of those who lost homes and businesses to Sandy were promising to return and rebuild, but many sounded chastened by their encounter with nature's fury. They included Tom Shalvey of Warwick, R.I., whose 500-square-foot cottage on the beach in South Kingstown was washed away by raging surf, leaving a utility pipe as the only marker of where it once sat.
"We love the beach. We had many great times here," Shalvey said. "We will be back. But it will not be on the front row."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.