(Reuters) - New York City was preparing to stage its first major event since cancelling its annual marathon as thousands of victims of Superstorm Sandy continued to struggle with power outages, gasoline shortages and freezing weather conditions.
Sunday's annual Veterans Day Parade is expected to attract crowds of over 600,000 people to central Manhattan and will be a test for a city still struggling to clean up after one of the worst natural disasters in the region's history.
Thousands were in temporary shelters, and in New Jersey a tent city on the edge of Monmouth Park racetrack was home to hundreds. Authorities in the region said they did not have access to enough alternative housing or hotel rooms for all those who have been displaced.
There were still over a quarter of a million customers without power nearly two weeks after the storm. As of Saturday, 66,000 of those were on Long Island, where residents hit hard by the storm protested outside the headquarters of the Long Island Power Authority in Hicksville.
New Yorkers also faced their second day of gasoline rationing under a system in which cars with odd- and even-numbered license plates can fill up only on alternate days.
Electric utilities have drawn withering criticism for their failure to quickly restore power throughout the region. For many, no electricity means no heat, hot water or hot meals.
"It's been terrible," said Diane Uhlfelder, a former New York City police officer at the protest in Hicksville, where a local police officer estimated about 300 hundred gathered outside LIPA headquarters.
"The cold is the worst," she said. "It's been hell."
Sandy smashed into the East Coast on October 29, killing at least 120 people and causing an estimated $50 billion in damages and economic losses. It destroyed homes along the New Jersey Shore and around New York City, cut off electricity for millions of people and knocked out much of the public transportation system.
Newly re-elected President Barack Obama is to visit hard-hit areas of New York City on Thursday. Obama put off an earlier visit at the request of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who feared it could hinder relief efforts.
Back outside LIPA headquarters in Hicksville, two 13-year-old girls held white cardboard signs decrying LIPA's slow response. One, in pink magic marker, read: "LIPA Stinks!" The other read: "Lame, Inept, Pitiful, Awful."
As a LIPA truck drove by, the unsmiling driver gripped the wheel with his left hand and raised his right hand to give the girls the finger.
Early on Saturday in Far Rockaway, a coastal area of New York City devastated by the storm surge, more than 500 people lined up with empty fuel cans. Word had spread Friday night that a tanker truck carrying 8,000 gallons of free gasoline was to arrive around 10 a.m.
The fuel was delivered under the auspices of the Fuel Relief Fund and funded by an anonymous donor, according to two police officers on the scene.
More than a quarter of the gas stations in the New York metropolitan area did not have fuel available for sale on Friday, the same number as on Thursday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.
At the Inwood refinery in southern Queens, a line of more than a dozen tanker trucks stretched from the refinery entrance. Some drivers slept while they waited.
Seven tanker drivers, most of whom serve independent gas stations throughout Long Island and New York City, said the average wait in recent days to fill up their tankers was about 3 hours, and then another 90 minutes once they reached the pumps.
"We're now lucky if we can get two runs in a day," said Parkash Ram, 54, of Queens, who works for a trucking company that supplies independent gas stations on Long Island.
But there were signs fuel lines were starting to ease up. There were no gasoline lines reported at most gas stations in New Jersey as well in some places in Long Island.
Bloomberg announced a day of service on Saturday and hundreds of volunteers helped stricken areas of the city.
On Staten Island, the New York City borough hit hardest by the storm, the sense of total material loss has settled in and residents were preparing their homes for demolition.
On Saturday, Yevgeniya Maltseva, 63, a Staten Island homeowner and medical office staffer was staying warm burning all five elements on her stove.
"We don't have any info at all. Con Edison (the electric utility company) is not even picking up the phone," she said.
On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will visit Staten Island. Homes along the island's south-eastern flank took the full brunt of the Atlantic storm surge.
Subway services to coastal areas were slowly being restored. Service to Coney Island resumed on Friday, but there was still no service to Far Rockaway. Widespread delays were reported on New Jersey commuter trains.
Many communities remain isolated. At a supermarket parking lot on East Park Avenue in Long Beach late Saturday afternoon, hundreds of weary residents were met with trucks carrying donated food and water, clean-up supplies and piles of clothes.
"Out here, time doesn't mean anything anymore," said Miles Rose, 58, an IT consultant from Long Beach. "You live by the sun, and when it goes down, the day is over and you go to bed. That's how we live now."
In New York's Broad Channel community, there was a boat in the middle of a road with a sign that read: "Broad Channel - the forgotten town."
On Saturday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo extended the deadline to February for New Yorkers who lost their income due to the storm to apply for federal assistance.
A boat belonging to Staten Island-based actor Clem Caserta called the "Jimmy Whispers" after a character Caserta played in Robert de Niro's debut film "A Bronx Tale" was washed up in Harbortown, 20 miles south of Newark, New Jersey.
Sandy ripped some 300 feet of floating dock off its moorings on the Staten Island side of the Arthur Kill waterway, and pushed it about half a mile across the water along with a half dozen fishing boats.
There were 289,239 customers without power on Saturday in the states struck by Sandy, a drop of 144,901 from Friday, the U.S. Energy Department said. At the peak 8.5 million were without power.
(Additional reporting by Chris Francescani Lauren T. LaCapra, Jonathan Spicer, and Jonathan Leff; Editing by Jackie Frank and Todd Eastham)