By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York City Marathon, one of the premier U.S. distance-running events, will take place as planned on Sunday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on Wednesday, as the city struggles to recover from heavy flooding caused by massive storm Sandy.
Proponents of allowing the race to occur argued that it would mark another step in the city's return to normalcy, while critics said it would divert vital resources, such as police, from assisting those still suffering from the storm's impact.
"There's tens of thousands of people who come from around the world here to run. We've decided the marathon will go on. We expect by Sunday most of the power will be back if not all of it," Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg, who announced the decision at an afternoon press conference to update the status of recovery efforts, said many of New York's small businesses rely on the boost from the thousands of out-of-town visitors who come for the race.
"Some people said you shouldn't run the marathon," Bloomberg said. "There's an awful lot of small businesses that depend on these people."
The race draws tens of thousands of participants, including some of the world's elite distance athletes. It starts in Staten Island and winds its way through all five of the city's boroughs over the 26.2-mile course. In 2011, more than 47,000 runners finished the race, according to the event's website.
"The marathon has a huge positive impact for the city, it's greatly valued," Mary Wittenburg, president and chief executive of the race organizer, New York Road Runners, said earlier at a separate press conference. "The economic impact has been estimated at $350 million."
Ahead of the decision, dozens of people posted messages to the club's Facebook page, many urging it to reconsider holding the race on Sunday.
"Please think about the people in Breezy Point and Staten Island who could dearly use the assistance of first responders over this marathon," read a posting from New York resident Michele Axt, referring to areas hit hard by Sandy.
Breezy Point, a remote beach neighborhood in Queens that juts into the Atlantic southwest of John F. Kennedy International Airport, was struck by a massive fire on Monday night during the height of the storm. More than 100 homes were destroyed.
Meanwhile, several areas of Staten Island, which sits at the mouth of New York Harbor and absorbed much of the blow from Sandy, suffered extensive flooding. And the Manhattan terminal for the Staten Island Ferry, the main public transport link to the island, was inundated by a record storm surge of nearly 14 feet and remains closed.
Before Sandy struck the area on Monday night, organizers had expected as many as 47,500 to participate this year. The current disruptions to transportation could prevent many runners from getting into the city and hinder their movements once they arrived. Limited subway service is scheduled to resume on Thursday, but major legs of the system remain closed.
Molly Pritz, who finished 12th in last year's marathon as the top American female, drove with her mother from Detroit for the race.
"So long as the conditions are safe, it seems like sporting events and group activities bring the city together or the world together, so I think the New York City Marathon shows off the spirit of the city like no other," said Pritz, 24.
"I think after tragedy the best thing we can do is come together and celebrate and try to work together to try to create an atmosphere through all the aftermath," Pritz said.
While the marathon will proceed, Bloomberg said the Brooklyn Nets regular season opener in Brooklyn on Thursday night would be postponed. The National Basketball Association franchise, formerly the New Jersey Nets, were slated to play the New York Knicks.
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Writing by Dan Burns; Editing by Paul Simao)