HOBOKEN, N.J. — New Jersey tried to bounce back Monday to what Gov. Chris Christie called "a new normal," starting the first full work since Superstorm Sandy with limited options for mass transit, many school districts still not open but power restored to about 2 million customers.
NJ Transit ramped up bus service, and gasoline was flowing at an increased number of stations that had powered back up. But Sandy's devastation left the state with huge challenges: hundreds of thousands entered their sixth day without electricity, natural gas was cut off to barrier islands, PATH train service remained suspended and at least 4,000 residents were still stuck in shelters.
"We're returning to a new normal," Christie said Sunday. "One where power is coming back on, people can fuel up again in their cars, where kids can go back to school, roads are cleared and we'll have clean water to drink."
Christie urged schools to reopen Monday if it was safe to do so and residents to return to work where they could. About one-third of the state's 2,400 schools had committed Sunday to open their doors for the start of the week. Others planned to open mid-week.
Overcrowding forced NJ Transit to halt North Jersey Coast Line trains in Woodbridge. Passengers were told to use bus service from Metropark instead.
Large crowds formed Monday as NJ Transit launched emergency bus service in northern New Jersey to shuttle passengers to ferries for service to New York City. Limited train service was also available.
"It's an exciting and challenging day," NJ Transit spokesman John Durso Jr. said.
Louis Holmes, 27, of Bayonne was waiting to board a ferry at Exchange Place in Jersey City to the World Financial Center, where he works as a security guard.
The Freedom Tower, blazing with lights across the Hudson River in the breaking dawn, was a short ferry hop across once he made it through the lines of commuters.
"It is what it is," Holmes said. "There's not much we can do. We'll get there whatever time we can — and our jobs have to understand — it's better late than absent."
Barbara Colucci, 51, of Bayonne, was waiting for a ferry to get to her job in midtown Manhattan.
"I can't wait until the PATH and light rail are up and running again, but first I'd like power in my house, quite honestly," she said.
Workers who normally take the PATH train between Lower Manhattan and New Jersey are still out of luck.
The PATH station at the World Trade Center was closed Monday, with iron fencing blocking the entrance.
A guard instructed people to catch a Hudson River ferry, a short walk away.
Christie acknowledged that commuting challenges remained, and he and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who visited storm-damaged Monmouth and Hudson counties with Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno on Sunday, urged residents to use buses, carpool or stagger their work hours.
"Be smart. We're in the throes of the back end of a crisis," Christie said.
He emphasized that there was no gas shortage, and said now that power is back on at the refineries, more stations are receiving deliveries. Additionally, National Guard tankers have begun moving gas to stations in several counties where lines were longest.
In northern New Jersey, a small earthquake, with a magnitude of 2.0, struck at 1:19 a.m. Monday in Ringwood, a community that's still dealing with downed trees and power outages from Sandy. The quake was also felt in Mahwah, Wanaque, Oakland, Franklin Lakes, West Milford and Paterson. There were no reports of damage.
Christie spent part of Sunday visiting a relief center at a Hoboken Elks Lodge, his sixth consecutive day of touring damaged areas by helicopter. He was asked at a press briefing afterward what he'd learned about New Jersey in the past several days.
"What I've learned is nothing," he said. "I've just had the things I already knew reaffirmed. This state is full of tough, gritty, no-nonsense, emotional people. You put all that together and it's a very interesting soup at a moment like this because people feel outwardly in this state. We are not a bunch of reserved quiet wallflower types."
A few of them were at Atlantic City's casinos, where it was clear "a new normal" hadn't yet been realized.
At the Tropicana casino, which reopened at 4 p.m. Friday, regulars and employees said Sunday afternoon that they had rarely if ever seen such sparse crowds. In parts of the casino, security guards and cocktail servers appeared to outnumber gamblers. There was one open craps table, and in the poker room, only two of the 27 tables were active, offering low-limit Texas Hold 'Em.
Tango's Lounge near the casino floor was empty except for regulars Genevieve Basile of Atlantic City and her friend Diane Caruso-Murphy of Tabernacle, who were sipping Mai Tais. Basile owns White House Subs, a cheesesteak shop that's been open since 1946 and took on 12 feet of water during the storm. It's likely to be closed for another month — the first extended closure in its history, said Basile, whose late father opened the shop when he was 20.
"I'm glad it didn't happen in my dad's lifetime," Basile said. "It has totally brought us to tears."Comment on this story
She said she was trying to help her 50 employees secure unemployment benefits.
"We've never laid anyone off, ever," she said. "Fired people, but never laid anyone off."
On the casino floor, Anna Brown, 69, was playing a 25-cent slot machine. Her home in nearby Ocean View was not damaged, so she decided to spend time at what she called her "happy place."
"I'm always here. I live 25 minutes from here. What am I going to do? Talk to the dog all day? I'd rather fight with the machine," Brown said.
Associated Press writer Ben Nuckols in Atlantic City contributed to this report.