By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY

Much of the storm-battered Northeast is now in early recovery mode. But widespread devastation and ongoing related fallout from superstorm Sandy will likely prolong rescue and rebuilding efforts, hampering the lives of millions over a wide area for days.

With Sandy's U.S. death toll now at 72 and estimates of destruction and economic fallout running as high as $55 billion, several flood and wind-ravaged states are restoring some semblance of normalcy as roads, schools and mass transit systems go back online.

President Obama, who toured hard-hit New Jersey Wednesday, warned that relief efforts would take time, but promised federal officials he would cut through "red tape and bureaucracy" to provide swift relief.

Special Section: Sandy coverage

"At this point, our main focus is on the state of New Jersey and New York," said Obama, flanked by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "But we're very concerned about some situations in Connecticut and were still monitoring West Virginia. Those four states are really bearing the brunt of this incredible storm."

Christie, a supporter of Republican Presidential contender Mitt Romney, has been an outspoken critic of Obama during the campaign. But the gruff bombast was replaced by effusive praise for Obama's response to the storm crisis. "I cannot thank the president enough for his concern and compassion for the people of our state,'' Cristie said as they met with storm victims.

Sandy has been particularly destructive to New Jersey, where the storm ravage coastal cities and towns after hitting landfall near Atlantic City Monday night. At least 14 state residents have died - the latest Wednesday night, when carbon monoxide leaking from a generator apparently caused the deaths of two sisters, ages 18 and 19, at an apartment building. Residents say the generator was being used in an attempt to light the building that had been without power.

Much of Hoboken, N.J., remains underwater after being flooded by the Hudson River. An estimated 20,000 people were still stranded in their homes, encouraged by city officials to stay there and wait for supplies to reach them.

Sandy continued its northern march Wednesday night.

While losing its early intensity, the 900-mile wide storm is expected to cause lingering problems for 12 states. Flood-watch warnings remained for northern New England and the northern Mid-Atlantic, while the National Weather Service has winter storm warnings for the central Appalachians and gale-force wind and flooding advisories across the lower Great Lakes.

Nearly 6 million homes and businesses in at least 12 states remain without power - down from Tuesday's 8.5 million - as an army of more than 50,000 utility workers from across the country and Canada arrived to make repairs.

Wall Street reopened for the first time since Friday. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose five boroughs were ravaged by death, destruction and flooding, rang the opening bell. "It's good for the city, good for country, it's good for everyone to get back to work," Bloomberg told CNBC. Despite fears of high volume and a broad sell-off, trading was muted and key indexes closed relatively flat.

Limited air service resumed at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark International. LaGuardia International was to open at 7 a.m. today. Amtrak plans to restore some train service to New York City on Friday, while some local subway and commuter rail traffic restarts this morning.

Troubles still abound. Thousands of residents along the battered New Jersey coastlines still awaited rescue Wednesday night. At least 9,000 residents in several states remain in rescue shelters. National Guard troops and local police were evacuating the last of 700 patients from New York's flood-ravaged Bellevue Hospital to other hospitals and local shelters.

New York City schools remain closed through Friday.

Although some electricity was restored, backup batteries and generators for cellphone towers were running out of juice. One of every five towers was down, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

That - plus more people relying on cellphones to stay connected - overwhelmed the system.

In New Jersey, some towns, such as Middletown, were experiencing gas shortages and shuttered service stations, forcing some motorists to wait hours to fill up cars and portable generators.

And while New York City buses returned to the streets and a huge line formed at the Empire State Building, it was clear that rebuilding the hardest-hit communities will take some time. Even unclogging normally clogged New York streets.

Early Wednesday, fire broke out in the heavily hit shore town of Mantoloking, N.J. Firefighters were unable to reach the blazes rekindled by natural gas leaks. More than a dozen homes were destroyed.

New Jersey National Guard troops began distributing ready-to-eat meals on Wednesday and rescuing thousands of Hoboken, N.J., residents trapped in brownstones and condos for two days by the surging waters of the Hudson River. Troops in high-wheeled vehicles began arriving just before midnight Tuesday to the city of 50,000 located directly across from Manhattan.

About half the city was flooded when the hurricane slammed the region, pushing water up the Hudson River and over its banks.

Wednesday marks the first day back at work for many in the hardest-hit areas, with days and weeks of cleanup ahead. Two of the nation's busiest airports, New York's Kennedy Airport and New Jersey's Newark Airport, reopened for limited service. LaGuardia Airport will stay closed because of extensive damage caused by runway flooding.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said limited subway service is set to resume on Thursday.

There were still only hints of the economic impact of the storm.

Forecasting firm IHS Global Insight predicted it 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.

At least 17 states suffered intense effects from the storm.

Coastal flooding along the Great Lakes was possible due to strong and persistent northerly winds.

The mountains of West Virginia could get a dumping of up to 10 more inches of snow, bringing totals to 2 feet to 3 feet in places. Surf conditions along the Atlantic, from Florida through New England, are expected to remain dangerous through Friday.

Across the storm region:
- The search continued off the coast of North Carolina for the captain of a tall ship that sank as Sandy headed north.
- In Virginia, utility crews hope to complete all storm restoration work by Thursday night except for a few locations where flooding or severe damage occurred.
- In West Virginia, utilities scrambled to restore power to thousands of customers amid snow storms and freezing temperatures. Poor road conditions were hampering assessment efforts.
- In Wisconsin, dangerously high waves and flooding were expected along Lake Michigan.
-- In Kentucky, as much of a foot of snow in the Appalachians
--- In Maine, the Port of Portland reopened, but ocean conditions remained dangerous with high
winds. Amtrak's Downeaster resumed service.
- On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, residents and property owners were coping with flooding, although emergency management officials say it could have been worse. The storm closed highway NC 12, known as "the beach road," and a portion of U.S. 158 in Kitty Hawk, one of the main entryways to the area.
- A 103-year-old oak tree that fell during the storm in New Haven, Conn., revealed a skeleton that may have been there since Colonial times. The tree was on the town green, in an area where thousands were buried in the Colonial era.
- Along the storm's path, many communities postponed Halloween celebrations until streets are once again safe.

Contributing: The Associated Press, Asbury Park Press

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