Scott Mayerowitz
and Jonathan Fahey

NEW YORK: Homes grew chilly without heat. Food spoiled in refrigerators. Televisions remained silent. And people everywhere scurried for a spot to charge their cell phones.

Two full days after Superstorm Sandy ripped through the Northeast, most Americans who lost power tried to make the best of a situation that was beyond their control while utilities struggled to restore electricity — a massive job they warned could last well into next week.

Sandy blacked out some of the nation’s most densely populated cities and suburbs, instantly taking away modern conveniences from Virginia to Massachusetts and as far west as the Great Lakes.

For power companies, the scale of the destruction was unmatched — more widespread than any blizzard or ice storm and worse than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s unprecedented: fallen trees, debris, the roads, water, snow. It’s a little bit of everything,” said Brian Wolff, senior vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, a group that lobbies for utilities.

Initially, about 60 million people were without power in 8.2 million homes and businesses. By Wednesday night, that number had fallen to roughly 44 million people in 6 million households and businesses.

Even as power slowly returned to some pockets, a new headache emerged: Backup batteries and generators running cell phone towers were running out of juice.

One out of every five towers was down, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

That — plus more people relying on their cell phones to stay connected — overwhelmed the system in some areas, making it hard to place calls.

With many businesses and schools closed, people looked for ways to keep themselves entertained.

John Mazzeo, of Monroe, Conn., had a small generator that doesn’t really provide him much power. But it was enough to keep his 7-year-old daughter occupied with a Christmas movie.

In New York, Vildia Samaniego traveled four miles uptown to a bar, the Blarney Stone, to watch the Boston Celtics play the Miami Heat.

“I really needed to watch the basketball game,” she said, laughing.

Peter Nikac, a teacher who lives in Fairfield, Conn., took a more old-fashioned route: His family spent their time playing board games and sorting through photos.

“You get back to when we were young with no electronics,” he said.