JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — Wearily cleaning up from the superstorm that battered the state and has left more than 1 million customers still without power, New Jerseyans were handed a new challenge Saturday: rationed gas in the northern part of the state, a system that caused confusion, frustration and desperation.
Gov. Chris Christie ordered the rationing system for 12 counties, saying it would help ease fuel shortages and the long lines at gas stations. It was to remain in place as long as Christie deemed a need for it, which he said he hoped would be no more than a few days.
The storm is blamed for 23 deaths in New Jersey. The latest — that of a 44-year-old Hunterdon County man who apparently suffered head injuries while using a chain saw to trim or cut down trees — was announced Saturday afternoon. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was scheduled to visit the state Sunday and view recovery efforts.
More than 1 million homes and businesses across New Jersey remained without electricity Saturday, and many of those customers may not have service restored until Wednesday. Christie released a list of when utilities intend to restore power to each community. Even if they end up working faster or slower, he said, residents will have a sense of when they will have power restored so they can plan their lives a bit better.
A few more steps toward normalcy were taken Saturday. Commuter rail operator New Jersey Transit said it would have more service restored in time for the workweek to start, most of bus service was restored, and about half the state's school districts reported they will reopen Monday.
Christie also said Election Day will go on as planned. If a polling place has no power, votes will be cast on a military truck "old school with a paper ballot," he said. He also announced New Jerseyans would be able to vote by email or fax by submitting a mail-in ballot application available on the state website to their county clerks, and returning it by the close of polls Tuesday.
"We will have a full, fair and transparent open voting process," he said.
On Saturday, fueling up vehicles was the primary goal for many.
Under the rationing system, drivers with license plates ending in an even number can buy gas on even-numbered days, and those with plates ending in an odd number on odd-numbered days. Drivers with vanity plates that have no numbers can buy gas on odd-numbered days.
At one Jersey City Sunoco station, city police officers waved motorists in and out to expedite the process, and they kicked one driver out of line because that person was trying to hold a spot for someone else. One officer said a woman claiming to be pregnant tried to cut the gas line, claiming she was about to deliver, and a pillow popped out of her shirt as she walked around.
Lewis Lockhart, of Newark, drove his black Ford Explorer from Newark before the rationing began because he was nearing empty and couldn't find gas in Newark.
"You're running out of gas to find gas," he said.
Getting gas, Lockhart said, is crucial.
"It's a matter of working and not working," he said.
After noon, an officer kicked drivers with even-numbered plates out of line. New Jersey is one of only two states where motorists are not allowed to pump their own gas, which can exacerbate waits.
At a news conference in Little Ferry, Christie urged residents to follow the rationing system.
"If everyone complies with this system, it will ease lines and wait times and create a less stressful situation for everyone involved," said Christie, speaking in the parking lot of a church where the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a center to help people file claims.
He said three fuel depots have been set up in the state to provide up to 15 gallons of gas to doctors and nurses so they can get to work. The main problem, Christie said, is that many gas stations just don't have power.
"It is in the most part a power issue, which we are moving to repair. It's also a fuel issue in some respects because a lot of the pipelines and other things are down because they don't have power," he said, adding that a lot of gas stations in northern New Jersey don't have the ability to add generators.
Jessica Tisdale of Totowa waited in her Mercedes SUV for 40 minutes with her even-numbered plate and a half tank of gas. She wanted to try to fill up just in case. She didn't quite understand the rationing, which she heard about Friday night.
"Is it the number or the letter?" she asked around 12:10. "I don't think it's fair. I've been in the line since before noon. I don't think it's fair. There's no clarity."
A police officer saw her plate and ordered her out of line, wagging his finger at her then pointing her to the passing lane of traffic.
"That's not fair," she said. The officer threw up his hands and shrugged.
Raj Khindri, who works at the station, said the system was working well.
"Everything is good. Everyone is compromising," he said. "I have a good relationship with the terminal. That's why I have gas."
In flood-ravaged Belmar, where two lakes near the ocean were overwhelmed by the storm surge, many streets were still under water Saturday, nearly five days after Sandy made landfall. Many homes had piles of ruined belongings on the curb, and neighbors were pitching in to clear out basements that were full of water for days. The owners of Tulipano's, an Italian restaurant on Main Street, were cooking big trays of penne marinara and giving it away to anyone who came inside.
Tam Wall, who was clearing out her basement with her husband and three children, said it took about 10 minutes for her basement to fill with 5 feet of water when the storm surge inundated Belmar. All she salvaged in those chaotic minutes were specially prepared meals for her 17-year-old daughter, Emily, who has epilepsy and is on a ketogenic diet.
"If we run out of her food, we have to leave the state," Tam Hall said. They've been cooking at the house of a relative with a generator and have enough to last a few days.
Susan Pringle, 48, and her children escaped from their Belmar home in kayaks during the storm. Saturday was the first chance they had to pump the 5 feet of water from their basement and clean out ruined belongings. They got help from volunteers, including football players and cheerleaders from Wall High School.
Pringle said they would repair the damage and keep living there.
"I would never leave Belmar. My children would kill me. They would not allow us to leave," she said.
Nuckols reported from Belmar.