US begins slow recovery as cost of storm damage tops $20bn

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The battered US East Coast yesterday took its first steps back towards daily routine, even as rescuers combed areas scarred by floods and fire.

But while New York buses returned to darkened streets oddly free of traffic and trading resumed at the Stock Exchange, it became clear restoring life to its normal pace could take days – and rebuilding the hardest-hit communities and their transport networks will take much longer.

With the presidential election just days away, Barack Obama called off campaigning for the third straight day to focus on co-ordinating the response to the storm, with a visit New Jersey to see the area near Atlantic City where the violent storm made landfall.

The winds and flooding inflicted by the fast-weakening Sandy have subsided, leaving at least 59 people dead along the Atlantic Coast and splintering beachfront homes and boardwalks from the mid-Atlantic states to southern New England.

At the height of the disaster, more than 8.2 million people lost electricity – some as far away as Michigan. About 6.5 million homes and businesses were last night still without power.

Mr Obama joined one of his top Republican critics to visit New Jersey, the state hardest hit by the storm.

It gave Americans a high-profile display of presidential leadership while leaving rival Mitt Romney awkwardly on the sidelines.

Mr Obama was accompanied by New Jersey governor Chris Christie who has been effusive in his praise of the President’s response to the storm.

National Guard troops arrived in the heavily flooded New Jersey city of Hoboken yesterday to help evacuate thousands still stuck in their homes and deliver ready-to-eat meals.

And new problems arose when firefighters were unable to reach blazes rekindled by natural gas leaks in the heavily hit shore town of Mantoloking. More than a dozen homes were destroyed.

But talk of recovery was already beginning.

“It’s heartbreaking after being here 37 years,” Barry Prezioso of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, said as he returned to his home to survey the damage. “You see your home demolished like this, it’s tough. But nobody got hurt and the upstairs is still liveable, so we can still live upstairs and clean this out. I’m sure there’s people that had worse. I feel kind of lucky.”

New York has also responded with typical determination to recover, even as the sale of the challenge ahead became clearer.

“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 neighbour, comfort a stranger and get the city we love back on its feet,” New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

Small signs of normality returned yesterday, including people waiting at bus stops as they returned to work. With the reopening of some bridges and roads, a limited number of the white and blue buses that criss-cross New York’s grid have returned on a reduced schedule – but free of charge.

Much of the initial recovery efforts are focused on New York, the region’s economic heart. Mayor Bloomberg said it could take four or five days before the subway is running again. High water, ceiling level in some cases, has prevented inspectors from assessing damage to key equipment.

But even with the return of some transportation and plans to reopen schools and businesses, the damage and pain continued to unfold.

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.

In Connecticut, some residents of Fairfield returned home in kayaks to inspect the damage left by floodwaters that kept other home owners at bay.

The storm also caused irreparable damage to homes in East Haven, Milford and other shore towns.