NEW YORK — Victims of Superstorm Sandy in New York and elsewhere in the Northeast were comforted Thursday by kinder weather, free holiday meals and — for some — front row seats to the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
"It means a lot," said Karen Panetta, of the hard-hit Broad Channel section of Queens, as she sat in a special viewing section set aside for New Yorkers displaced by the storm.
"We're thankful to be here and actually be a family and to feel like life's a little normal today," she said.
The popular Macy's parade, attended by more than 3 million people and watched by 50 million on TV, included such giant balloons as Elf on a Shelf and Papa Smurf, a new version of Hello Kitty, Buzz Lightyear, Sailor Mickey Mouse and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Real-life stars included singer Carly Rae Jepsen and Rachel Crow of "The X Factor."
The young, and the young at heart, were delighted by the sight and sound of marching bands, performers and, of course, the giant balloons. The sunny weather quickly surpassed 50 degrees.
Alan Batt and his 11-year-old twins, Kyto and Elina, took in the parade at the end of the route, well away from the crowd and seemingly too far away for a good view. But they had an advantage: Two tall stepladders they hauled over from their apartment eight blocks away — one for each twin.
"We're New Yorkers," the 65-year-old Batt said. "We know what we're doing."
With the height advantage, "I get to see everything!" Kyto said.
At nearby Greeley Square, social worker Lowell Herschberger, 40, of Brooklyn, sought in vain to tear his sons, 8-year-old Logan and 6-year-old Liam, from a foosball table set up in the tiny park as the balloons crept by on the near horizon.
"Hey, guys — there's Charlie Brown," he said, pointing at the old standby balloon.
The boys didn't look up.
"I guess they're over it," the father said with a shrug.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was reflective Thursday as he praised police, firefighters, armed services personnel, sanitation workers and volunteers involved in the storm response. His office was coordinating the distribution of 26,500 meals at 30 sites in neighborhoods affected by Sandy, and other organizations also were pitching in.
The disaster zones on Staten Island were flooded — this time with food and volunteers from Glen Rock, N.J., organized using social media.
"We had three carloads of food," volunteer Beth Fernandez said. "The whole town of Glen Rock pitched in. ... It's really cool. It's my best, my favorite Thanksgiving ever."
On Long Island, the Long Beach nonprofit Surf For All hosted a Thanksgiving event that fed 1,200 people. Carol Gross, 72, a Long Beach native, said she went to volunteer but was turned away because of a surplus of helpers.
"A lot of people like me, old-timers, we've never seen anything like this horror," she said, recalling the destruction.
Gross' brother, Jerry, who moved to Arizona in the 1960s, was stunned by what he saw when he returned for Thanksgiving.
"To come back and see the boardwalk all devastated like it is, it's like going to Manhattan and finding Times Square gone," he said.
George Alvarez, whose Toms River, N.J., home suffered moderate damage when Sandy hit the coast, said his family usually does "the traditional big dinner" on Thanksgiving. But this year, they chose to attend a community dinner held at an area church.
"This storm not only impacted us, it impacted a lot of our friends, our community, our psyche," Alvarez said shortly before his family headed out for their meal. "We could have had our usual dinner here at home, but this year it felt like we should be with others who are experiencing the same concerns we are. We made it through this devastating storm, and that's something to celebrate."
Across the country, other cities offered a mix of holiday cheer and acts of charity.
Thousands of people made the most of the mild, sunny fall weather to watch Detroit's Thanksgiving parade, hours ahead of the Lions' annual home game.
Floats and marching bands poured down Woodward Avenue on Thursday morning, with many spectators forgoing the cold-weather gear of past parades. Detroit's temperature hit 52 degrees at 11 a.m., with a warm wind blowing from the south.
Parade participants included NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski, a 28-year-old Rochester Hills native and the first Michigan-born driver to win the Sprint Cup Series.
In San Francisco, lines of the homeless and less fortunate began forming late Wednesday outside a church in the city's tough Tenderloin district that expected to serve more than 5,000 meals, said the Rev. Cecil Williams.
"We must make sure people can overcome all adversities," Williams said. "You can, you will and you must."
On New York City's Rockaway Peninsula, convenience store owner Mohamed Razack said he was able to open again Wednesday for the first time since the storm.
"At first, I was very depressed, but now, I'm proud," said Mohamed Razack, 50. "We are the first store to open around here."
AP radio correspondent Julie Walker, AP video journalist Ted Shaffrey and Associated Press writers Kiley Armstrong and Karen Matthews in New York, Alison Barnwell on Long Island, Bruce Shipkowski in New Jersey and Terry Collins in San Francisco contributed to this report.