NEW YORK — Millions of families tried to adjust to life without modern conveniences Wednesday, two full days after Superstorm Sandy ripped through the Northeast and blacked out some of the nation’s most densely populated cities and suburbs.
Homes grew chilly without heat. Food spoiled in refrigerators. Televisions remained silent. And people everywhere scurried for a spot to charge their cell phones.
By and large, Americans tried to make the best of a situation that was beyond their control while utilities struggled to restore power — a massive job they warned could last well into next week.
Sandy’s footprint was enormous, knocking down wires and rendering other critical equipment useless across a huge span of the country, from Virginia to Massachusetts and as far west as the Great Lakes.
“It’s unprecedented: fallen trees, debris, the roads, water, snow. It’s a little bit of everything,” said Brian Wolff, senior vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, a group that lobbies for utilities.
For power companies, the scale of the destruction was unmatched. The damage is more widespread than any blizzard or ice storm. And it’s worse than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
About 60 million people were initially without power in 8.2 million homes and businesses. By Wednesday night, that number had fallen to roughly 44 million people in 6 million households and businesses.
Even as power slowly returned to some pockets, a new headache emerged: Backup batteries and generators running cell phone towers were running out of juice. One out of every five towers was down, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
That — plus more people relying on their cell phones to stay connected — overwhelmed the system in some areas, making it hard to place calls.
With many businesses and schools closed, people looked for ways to keep themselves entertained.
John Mazzeo, of Monroe, Conn., had a small generator that doesn’t really provide him much power. But it was enough to keep his 7-year-old daughter occupied with a Christmas movie. Meals consisted of McDonald’s and cereal.
In New York, Vildia Samaniego traveled four miles uptown to a bar, the Blarney Stone, to watch the Boston Celtics play the Miami Heat.
“I really needed to watch the basketball game,” she laughed. “The place was packed. It’s amazing how much you miss television.”
Peter Nikac, a teacher who lives in Fairfield, Conn., took a more old-fashioned route: His family spent their time playing board games and sorting through photos.
“You get back to when we were young with no electronics,” he said. “You realize you don’t need a lot of that material. You get back to just doing simple things which is somewhat pleasing.”
For others, the outage had graver consequences.
“I have several hundred dollars’ worth of insulin in the refrigerator,” said Joan Moore of New York’s Staten Island, who is diabetic.
In Bellington, W. Va., Stephanie Hinkle and her 10- and 12-year-old kids waited with about a dozen other evacuees at a Red Cross shelter.
“No heat, no way to cook, no way to keep two small children warm. You have to do what you have to do to keep them safe,” she said. Hinkle is unemployed and relies on government help to feed her kids, so she didn’t have stockpiled food, water and other supplies.
For New Yorkers living in the vertical city, a loss of power means much more than spoiled cold cuts and frozen dinners. Electricity is needed to pump water to upper floors. Many New Yorkers prepared for the storm by stocking up on bottled water. But without power, there’s no way to flush the toilet.
There were encouraging acts of kindness, gestures made by the lucky ones with electricity.
“I have power and hot water. If anyone needs a shower or to charge some gadgets or just wants to bask in the beauty of artificial light, hit me up,” Rob Hart, who also lives on Staten Island, wrote on Facebook.
Not everybody was so neighborly.
Jake Tschudy was busy selling generators out of a truck parked on the side of a Rhode Island highway. He bought 70 of the Hyundai generators prior to the storm and was now asking $699 or $1,399 each, depending on the size. Tschudy wouldn’t say how much he marked up the price.
“I do OK,” he said. “It’s not gouging.”
Many suburban and rural neighborhoods lost power after Sandy’s winds, which reached up to 90 mph, knocked trees and branches into overhead wires.
Sandy’s massive storm surge — 14 feet of water that broke a record set in 1821 — also frustrated efforts to quickly restore power. In New York City and along the New Jersey and Connecticut coasts, flooding knocked out substations and switching yards, the vertebrae of the electric distribution system.
Far from the coasts, utilities dealt with a different problem: Snow piled onto trees that still had leaves, knocking branches and whole trees onto major transmission lines.
In many neighborhoods, power companies can’t even tell which blocks are without electricity because they need to get regional substations online first. Once they identify affected blocks, tree limbs need to be cut, new power lines need to be strung and blown transformers replaced.
“Until we get these major assets back in service, we don’t have the ability to say: Oh gee, Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s home is out of service because of a tree on their line,” said Ralph A. LaRossa, chief operating officer of New Jersey utility PSE&G.
In all, 53,000 utility workers from as far away as Minnesota, New Mexico and California have come east to help.
The cleanup cost for utilities adds up fast. There’s travel, food and labor costs for all those of out-of-state workers, plus overtime pay. Baltimore Gas & Electric set up a tent at the stadium where the Baltimore Ravens play to help feed and do laundry for the 4,000 workers who came to assist.
Homeowners and businesses are likely to get stuck with the cleanup bill — though not always and not right away. The process varies from state to state, but typically utilities ask regulators for permission to charge customers for the cleanup through rate increases.
If the storm was major and regulators conclude that utilities prepared and did a good job restoring power, they will allow small rate increases over a long period of time.
But utility regulators also have the power to force the companies and their shareholders to eat all or some of the costs.
Sometimes businesses opened, only to realize that might not be the best idea.
Wayne Edelman opened Meurice Garment Care on Wednesday in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, even though it didn’t have power. A single employee took orders with a pen and pad. But when customers came to pick up their clothes, the employee couldn’t find them on the store’s conveyor belt. Rather than disappoint more customers, Edelman shut the store.
In Long Beach, on New York’s Long Island, Rob Dimino, owner of a fast-food store called Pantano’s was cleaning up flood damage from Sandy.
Dimino pointed to a line on the wall, 15 inches above the floor, and said that was how high the water had risen.
A dank odor mixed with the smell of rotting food lingered in the air. Dimino estimated he’d have to throw out thousands of dollars’ worth of food. He said going without power for another week or two would be “crippling.”