By Selam Gebrekidan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In the busiest oil port in the United States, the dangerous detritus of superstorm Sandy - tree trunks, rail ties, a 3-foot-long traffic barrier - have replaced the tankers and barges that keep the Northeast running.
Two days after Sandy delivered a record blow, New York Harbor, the delivery point for the world's most actively traded gasoline and heating oil futures contracts, and a vital fuel source for the surrounding urban milieu, remained shut to commercial traffic, with no estimates for reopening.
Some 80 vessels were anchored just off the Ambrose channel, the entryway to the harbor, the Coast Guard said. Seven of these are carrying petroleum fuels that are eagerly awaited by oil traders and metropolitan motorists.
Each day's delay threatens to drive up pump prices and put more strain on fast-depleting gasoline and diesel stocks, with hundreds of filling stations already out of fuel after a major refiner and the biggest pipeline shut operations.
Early on Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Coast Guard took a dozen reporters aboard one of its 45-foot rescue boats to witness the damage left by Sandy's record storm surges and gale-force winds.
The water had calmed but debris was piled on Staten Island's northern shores, near the heavily traveled Verazzano Narrows Bridge, as the city's fifth borough bore the brunt of Sandy's fury.
"This part of the water hasn't been checked yet," Lieutenant Commander Bill Walsh, who led the tour, said on Wednesday, eyeing a plank of timber near the small rescue boat. "A boat hits one of the (timbers), that is going to ruin our day."
Moments later, and as if on cue, the boat's small diesel engine stalled after sucking up a piece of debris. An uncomfortable silence followed until the engine kicked in and the tour resumed.
Coast Guard officers are still assessing damage and responding to rescue calls across the waters in New York and New Jersey.
Whenever they see large chunks of debris floating across the waters, they call in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean up, part of the massive Northeast effort to restore power, transportation and fuel supplies to a region roiled by the biggest Atlantic storm ever to make landfall.
The New York Harbor is a critical hub for the region, with some 75 million barrels of storage capacity that allows companies to import, blend and trade everything from gasoline to jet fuel before trucking it to airports or fuel pumps.
The area received nearly 900,000 barrels-per-day of petroleum and related products in August, more than enough to fuel all of New York state, Energy Department data shows.
Early on Wednesday afternoon, only Coast Guard and Army Corps boats traveled the water, along with occasional private boaters who were soon turned back ashore.
There were severe restrictions in place; vessels could venture into the harbor only with the Port Captain's approval, what the Coast Guard calls "Condition Yankee." Even if they were allowed through, however, major import terminals along the harbor remain shut due to damage and power outages.
Other ports like Boston were open to traffic as early as Tuesday.
Barges caught in the harbor before Sandy's arrival were floating in various states of disrepair. One tanker lay beached on the northern beaches of Staten Island.
As the tour boat charged back toward the battered towers of Manhattan's southern tip, a call came in to rescue two children, ages 6 and 4, who were stranded on the southern beaches of Staten Island.
With that, the next course was charted.
(Reporting by Selam Gebrekidan, additional reporting by Matthew Robinson; Editing by Jonathan Leff and Cynthia Osterman)