NEW YORK -- Victims of Superstorm Sandy in New York and elsewhere in the Northeast were comforted Thursday by kinder weather, free holiday meals and -- for some -- front row seats to the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
"It means a lot," said Karen Panetta, of the hard-hit Broad Channel section of Queens, as she sat in a special viewing section set aside for residents displaced by the storm.
"We're thankful to be here and actually be a family and to feel like life's a little normal today," she said.
The popular Macy's parade, attended by more than 3 million people and watched by 50 million on TV, included such giant balloons as Elf on a Shelf and Papa Smurf, a new version of Hello Kitty, Buzz Lightyear, Sailor Mickey Mouse and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Real-life stars included singer Carly Rae Jepsen and Rachel Crow of "The X Factor.”
The young, and the young at heart, were delighted by the sight and sound of marching bands, performers and, of course, the giant balloons. The sunny weather quickly surpassed 50 degrees. Some parade-goers had camped out to get a good spot, staying snug in sleeping bags.
Alan Batt and his 11-year-old twins, Kyto and Elina, took in the parade at the end of the route, well away from the crowd and seemingly too far away for a good view. But they had an advantage: Two tall stepladders they hauled over from their apartment eight blocks away -- one for each twin.
"We're New Yorkers," the 65-year-old Batt said. "We know what we're doing.”
With the height advantage, "I get to see everything!" Kyto said.
At nearby Greeley Square, social worker Lowell Herschberger, 40, of Brooklyn, sought in vain to tear his sons, 8-year-old Logan and 6-year-old Liam, from a foosball table set up in the tiny park as the balloons crept by on the near horizon.
"Hey, guys -- there's Charlie Brown," he said, pointing at the old stand-by balloon.
The boys didn't look up.
"I guess they're over it," the father said with a shrug.
Away from the parade, in the ravaged Belle Harbor section of Queens, 48-year-old Lauren Urban said the holiday felt bittersweet.
"I've lost the whole month of November," she said. Still, nearly a month after storm struck, "I'm becoming myself again," she added.
Urban others received free Thanksgiving meals on Thursday, courtesy of New Jersey supermarket owner Peter Burrini.
"When we got there with the trucks, there were so many people, and in their faces was so much gratitude and pain," Burrini said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was reflective Thursday as he praised police, firefighters, armed services personnel, sanitation workers and volunteers involved in the storm response. His office was coordinating the distribution of 26,500 meals at 30 sites in neighborhoods affected by Sandy, and other organizations also were pitching in.
The holiday came as other portions of the Northeast still were reeling from Sandy's havoc, and volunteers planned to serve thousands of turkey dinners to people it left homeless or struggling.
Some used social media to coordinate Thanksgiving volunteering. Elle Aichele, of Toms River, N.J., started a Facebook page called Hurricane Sandy Thanksgiving Adopt a Family for Dinner.
"Please host a family that needs something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving!" she wrote. "I have been thinking about what I can do to help and this is it!”
In San Francisco, lines began forming late Wednesday outside Glide Memorial Church as scores of volunteers were hard at work serving meals during its annual Thanksgiving feast.
Situated in the city's tough Tenderloin district, the church expects to serve more than 5,000 meals on Thursday including turkey, ham, stuffing and gravy to the homeless and less fortunate.
Glide's minister, the Rev. Cecil Williams, said that the meals are not only about helping feed those need but to also assist those who have fallen on hard times.
"We must make sure people can overcome all adversities," Williams said. "You can, you will and you must.”
Other cities planned to have showy marching bands, cartoon character balloons and musical extravaganzas, as well. Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit were among the big cities hosting parades.
In Detroit, thousands of people made the most of the mild, sunny fall weather to watch Detroit's Thanksgiving parade, hours ahead of the Lions' annual home game.
To the east, Doreen Queenan and 18-year-old daughter Ariana came in from suburban Norristown, Pa., to see Philadelphia's Thanksgiving parade, billed as the nation's oldest.
Ariana Queenan, home from her freshman year at Hofstra University in New York, was wearing a Yankees ski hat to keep warm during the chilly morning. That got the attention of a clown in the parade, she said.
"Somebody walked up to me and said, `Go Phillies!"' said Ariana Queenan. She added that while her loyalties were torn, the Yankees' colors of navy and gray matched her jacket.
Her mother, meanwhile, said this Thanksgiving she is grateful for Ariana's good grades.
"I am thankful for a daughter who appreciates how much tuition is," Doreen Queenan said with a laugh. "She's taking college seriously.”