The city launches a food-distribution effort, and the Sandy death toll rises to 37

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Bloomberg on Thursday in City Hall. (via NYC.gov)
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The New York City death toll from Hurricane Sandy is now at least 37, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also announced that the city is about to launch a massive food distribution effort in some of its hardest-hit neighborhoods.

"We have found a few more deceased, and once again our hearts go out to them," he said, speaking to the press in City Hall.

That number is likely to rise more and then, possibly, fall a little bit.

The mayor spoke specifically about two young children playing in their home who were killed when a tree collapsed the house. 

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At the press conference, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver described some of the ongoing hardships in his own district, which encompasses Lower Manhattan, where there is basically no power.

"As a resident who lives in a high-rise building, I'm not sure that everybody appreciates what the challenges are," he said. "There is no electricity of any kind. You walk around with a flashlight. There's no water. No water to flush toilets. Go down to the fire hydrant, fill up a pail, and if you're lucky enough to have a tank, you actually pour the water in the tank, and then you're able to flush the toilet for that particular moment."

"We have elderly people who live in high rises," he continued. "There's no elevator service. They have no lights. Some of them have no flashlights. They have no food, no refrigeration, no freezers."

There are shortages at gas stations, and there have been sporadic instances of storm-related theft. Police arrested 18 people inside a Key Food on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island, NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly said.

Perhaps related: The city now sees hunger as an urgent problem. The mayor announced that, in an effort to combat hunger in "hard-hit" areas around the city like the south shore of Staten Island, Coney Island, Chinatown and the Rockaways, the city would distribute food.

From about 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., the city will distribute bottles of water and pre-prepared meals at staging areas throughout the city.

Tomorrow, food and water distribution will run from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

(New Yorkers can call 311 to find food distribution locations or visit NYC.gov.)

There will be a limit of three meals and five bottles of water per person, and the distribution centers will remain open as long as they're needed.

Also, AT&T, which has had service difficulties following the storm, will set up "pod" trucks with satellite connections near the food distribution centers, so customers can charge their phones and get a signal.

The carpooling restrictions on Manhattan-bound East River bridges will remain for the time being, and there is still no subway service south of 34th Street in Manhattan, or between Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn.

On the upside, the three major airports are now open, schools will reopen on Monday, and parks will reopen on Saturday.

Also, the mayor said: "I don't think we've had a murder in two or three days."

Con Edison has told the mayor that most of the city's traffic lights should be up and running by the end of the weekend. 

There is now some East River ferry service, and construction crews can resume work exterior work, something that was halted prior to the storm, to prevent debris from flying loose.

Asked if he was at all concerned that by allowing Sunday's New York City Marathon to go ahead as planned, he would be needlessly diverting scarce police resources, the mayor said he wasn't.

"The marathon's not going to redirect any focus," he said. "Keep in mind, by Sunday, we'll have electricity back downtown. That will free up an enormous number of police. Also a lot of the transportation needs that we have during the week aren't there on the weekends."

The mayor also pooh-poohed suggestions that New York City should consider protecting its substantial low-lying neighborhoods with tidal barriers, like the kind they have in London and Rotterdam.

"Even if you spent a fortune, it's not clear to me that you would get much value from it," he said, citing the enormous size of New York Harbor.