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Sandy's power outages can mean life-and-death decisions

Fuel for a generator to run an oxygen machine keeps one couple's daughter alive. Electricity is returning to some areas, but gas lines remain long.

November 04, 2012|By Brian Bennett and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times
  • Evelyn Perez of Valley Stream, N.Y., tends her daughter Catherine, 25, who needs an oxygen machine to stay alive. With the power out after the super storm Sandy, the machine runs on a generator, but finding fuel is a constant struggle.
Evelyn Perez of Valley Stream, N.Y., tends her daughter Catherine, 25,… (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles…)

VALLEY STREAM, N.Y.— When Harry Perez looks at the red plastic canister on his back porch, he sees more than five gallons of unleaded. He sees six more hours that his bedridden daughter Catherine can continue breathing with the aid of an oxygen machine.

This is the cold calculus that super storm Sandy has wrought for the Perez family.

Five days after Sandy's winds toppled thousands of power lines and tidal surges flooded electrical stations, half the homes on Long Island remained without power Saturday, and long lines persisted to buy gasoline for cars and generators.

PHOTOS: Sandy's devastation on the East Coast

For families like the Perezes, who have been fanning out over Long Island in a desperate search for gas, the storm-caused outages remain more than an inconvenience: They are a matter of life and death.

Still, there are signs of hope.

The hum of daily life grew a little more audible across New York and New Jersey on Saturday as electricity surged back into blacked-out areas, and gas became a bit more plentiful.

VIDEOS: East Coast hit by deadly storm

Public Service Electric & Gas Co., New Jersey's biggest utility, said power had been restored to all major gasoline refineries in its area. Several terminals reopened, or were about to reopen, in ports throughout the region, the U.S. Energy Department said.

The Defense Department set up mobile fuel stations throughout New York City and planned to distribute 12 million gallons of gasoline and 10 million gallons of diesel fuel to run generators. The gas was free, with a limit of 10 gallons per person. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie instituted gas rationing, with cars restricted to filling up every other day on the basis of odd- or even-numbered license plates.

Electricity was restored to much of Lower Manhattan, and authorities expected to have power fully back up there Sunday. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that, by midday Saturday, 80% of the subway system had been restored, including some of the lines that are vital for commuters traveling to jobs in Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens.

FULL COVERAGE: Super storm Sandy hammers Northeast

A return to normal life, however, seemed distant for many.

Lines at service stations remained long and at times testy. Some station owners jacked up prices by $1 or more a gallon. In New Jersey, officials said they had received more than 500 complaints of price-gouging, and had issued subpoenas to 65 businesses.

Power remained out to broad swaths of the region. Temperatures were dropping, with lows expected to hit freezing Monday.

"Nights are hard," said Donald Dozier, 66, a retired computer systems tech in Elmont, Long Island. With temperatures falling into the 30s at night, he, his wife, her sister and his 90-year-old mother have managed to keep warm with "a lot of blankets and a lot of closeness," he said.

As the death toll from the storm hit 113, President Obama met with Cabinet officers and top emergency officials at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington.

"We still have a long way to go," he acknowledged, adding that the "recovery process is difficult and it's painful."

The president said the government's top priority was to get power restored throughout the region, which involved pumping water from areas where electrical substations had been flooded. He also said it was important to find temporary housing more substantial than emergency shelters for people who lacked power and heat.

"There's nothing more important than us getting this right," he said.

The president would get no argument from the Perez family. For 25-year-old Catherine Perez, who was born with half a lung and has the mental capacity of a 2-year-old, a gas generator keeps her oxygen machine running and keeps her alive.

Thursday night looked dire. The Perezes' son Brian, 30, stood in line for five hours at a station only to get to the pump just as the tank ran dry.

A cousin told him there was gas at a station in Greenwich, Conn., 40 miles away. He jumped into the car at midnight and floored it. He was home by 2 a.m. with three full red canisters: 15 gallons — 18 hours of oxygen.

On Friday, the family had a stroke of luck. The gas station across the street opened and, after a two-hour wait, Harry and Evelyn were able to buy 10 more gallons.

But for a couple that have spent more than two decades caring for their daughter around the clock, the power outage and the gas shortage have added a new level of stress.

"This is crazy," Evelyn said as she stroked Catherine's cockatoo, Peaches. The Perez family has asked the Long Island Power Authority to connect their house to the grid that is powering the houses across the street. But they haven't gotten a response.

Their doctor advised them to avoid taking Catherine to a hospital because she is susceptible to pneumonia. They think she is safer at home.

"We do what we need to do for her," said Harry.

On Sunday, that will mean finding more gas.

Bennett reported from Valley Stream and Bengali from New York City. Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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