NEW YORK (AP) - With people in storm-ravaged areas still shivering without electricity and the death toll in New York City at more than 40, many New Yorkers recoiled at the prospect of police officers being assigned to protect a marathon.
They were repelled by the thought of storm victims being evicted from hotels to make room for people coming into town for the race, and the sight of big generators humming along at the finish-line tents in Central Park.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he hoped to lift spirits and unite the stricken city when he decided to press ahead with this weekend's New York City Marathon. Instead, the move became a source of strife Friday, with Bloomberg facing an outcry from politicians and ordinary New Yorkers who said this is not the time for a road race.
They complained that holding the event just six days after Superstorm Sandy would be insensitive and tie up precious resources when many people are still suffering.
Joan Wacks, whose Staten Island waterfront condo was swamped with 4 feet of water, predicted authorities will still be recovering bodies when the estimated 40,000 runners from around the world hit the streets for the 26.2-mile race Sunday, and she called the mayor "tone deaf."
"He is clueless without a paddle to the reality of what everyone else is dealing with," she said. "If there are any resources being put toward the marathon, that's wrong. I'm sorry, that's wrong."
At a news conference, Bloomberg defended his decision as a way to raise money for the city's recovery and boost morale after Sandy flooded neighborhoods and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands homes and businesses.
Bloomberg said New York "has to show that we are here and we are going to recover" and "give people something to cheer about in what's been a very dismal week for a lot of people."
"You have to keep going and doing things," he said, "and you can grieve, you can cry and you can laugh all at the same time. That's what human beings are good at."
Noting that street lights should be back on in Manhattan by midnight Friday and parts of the transit system are up and running again, he gave assurances that the race would not take away police officers and other resources needed in the recovery.
He also pointed out that his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, went ahead with the marathon two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and "it pulled people together."
But in a sign of the how the political mood was turning against Bloomberg, City Comptroller John Liu, an elected official who is considered a likely candidate for mayor next year, reversed course. Liu warned that it has become clear that holding the marathon this weekend would "compromise the city's ability to protect and provide for the residents most affected by the hurricane."
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer called for a postponement, saying New Yorkers "deserve nothing less than to know that the entire government is focused solely on returning the City and their region back to normalcy. And City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said pressing ahead "is not a decision I would have made."
One of the world's pre-eminent road races, the marathon generates an estimated $340 million for the city. This time, the marathon's sponsors and organizers have dubbed it the "Race to Recover" and intend to use the event to raise money for the city to deal with the crisis. New York Road Runners, the race organizer, will donate $1 million and said sponsors have pledged more than $1.5 million.
"It's hard in these moments to know what's best to do," NYRR president Mary Wittenberg said. "The city believes this is best to do right now."
The course runs from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on hard-hit Staten Island to Central Park, sending runners through all five boroughs. The course will not be changed, since there was little damage along the route.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said police officers will not be taken off storm-recovery duty to work the marathon. He said the estimated 2,000 officers on the marathon route come in on their days off, on overtime, while those on storm duty work extended shifts on their regular work days.
Michael Sofronas of Manhattan used to run the marathon and has been a race volunteer for four years, serving as an interpreter for foreign runners. But he said he won't volunteer this year.
"I'm also really very aghast at the fact that we've just gone through the Sandy hurricane and I believe that the people should not be diverted to the marathon. They should focus on the people in need," he said. "It's all about money, money from everybody. The sponsors, the runners."
A Swede who arrived in New York this week to run in the marathon sided with the mayor.
"It doesn't feel good, coming to New York," Maria Eriksson said. "But the marathon has been planned for such a long time. And besides, it brings so much money to the city. That should help. What help would it be to cancel?"
Other runners were torn.
Olivia Waldman, who lives on the Upper East Side, said: "I want to be a part of this marathon and I also want to be a part of the hurricane relief. I'm trying to help where I can, and the marathon is going on, so we have to help in making that go forward."
But John Esposito, a Staten Islander helping his elderly parents clean out their flooded home, said: "They brought giant generators to power the marathon tents while we've got thousands of people without power. ... How about putting one of these generators here? Have some compassion."
Adam Shanker of Short Hills, N.J., said he moved his family from his dark and cold house to a Manhattan hotel, only to learn they were being kicked out Friday to make room for someone with reservations for the marathon.
"I hate Mayor Bloomberg," he said. "It is absolutely retarded to have a marathon starting, especially in Staten Island, where people just lost everything in the world. And they're going to have these people run through our streets like celebrating some kind of run, which I think is great, but not now. ... And now people who can't even get rooms are getting kicked out of the only rooms they have because these people have rooms. And, you know, what is he thinking?"
Photo Credit: Rob Boudon