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Gas shortage continues to plague Southeast

Across a section of the South, a hurricane-induced gasoline shortage that was expected to last only a few days is dragging into its third week.
Image: Gas shortage, Kroger fuel station in Lilburn
Patrons wait in line to fill their gas tanks at a Kroger fuel station in Lilburn, Georgia, on Monday.  Tami Chappell / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Motorists are rising before dawn so they can be at the filling station when the delivery truck arrives. Some are skipping work or telecommuting. Others are taking the extreme step — for Atlanta — of switching to public transportation.

Across a section of the South, a hurricane-induced gasoline shortage that was expected to last only a few days is dragging into its third week, and experts say it could persist into mid-October. The Atlanta area has been hit particularly hard, along with Nashville and western North Carolina.

Those lucky enough to find gas are paying more than drivers elsewhere around the country.

"I've used up gas just looking for gas," said Larry Jenkins, a construction worker who pulled his red pickup truck into a Citgo station in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday. The sign said $3.99 a gallon, but the pumps were closed. Many filling stations in the area have not had gas for days.

"Right now, I'll pay anything for gas," Jenkins said. "I don't care if it's $5 or $6 a gallon. I need it."

The shortage started with the one-two punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which shut down refineries along the Gulf Coast. Now, more than two weeks after Ike, many refineries are still making fuel at reduced levels.

While other parts of the country get gasoline from a variety of domestic and overseas sources, the Southeast relies heavily on two pipelines that carry fuel from the Gulf of Mexico. Because the gasoline moves at just 3 to 5 mph, it can take up to 10 days to reach Atlanta.

A tendency among panicky drivers in the hardest-hit areas to top off their tanks every time they pass an open station has only made matters worse.

"Fuel is coming back into the system, but as soon as it comes in, it's being sucked back out by consumers who are afraid the shortage is going to continue," said Ben Brockwell of the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J.

In the meantime, government agencies have postponed public hearings, community colleges have canceled classes, and some companies have provided vans for carpooling or encouraged employees to work from home.

Hours-long lines, "No gas" signs and plastic bags covering fuel-pump nozzles are familiar sights around Atlanta, where drivers have become intimately familiar with fuel delivery schedules, rising before daybreak when they know gas is coming to a certain station.

"I was just in Atlanta yesterday. There is no gasoline in Atlanta, in Charlotte, in Chattanooga. It's like a Third World country," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Sunday on ABC.

Police officers and a security guard were on hand to manage the flow of cars at a downtown Atlanta gas station around midday Monday.

Kathy Burdett, 49, of Forest Park, said the shortage ruined her weekend plans to visit Stone Mountain with out-of-town guests.

"I didn't go anywhere all weekend and we kept close to home," said Burdett, who had to hunt for the gasoline her friends needed to make it home to Tennessee.

The average price for regular gas Monday was $3.94 per gallon in Georgia, 30 cents higher than the national average, according to the AAA. Motorists were paying an average of $3.89 a gallon Monday in North Carolina and $3.80 in South Carolina.

Authorities in North Carolina and Tennessee said they were investigating reports of price-gouging, while Georgia's consumer affairs office has subpoenaed sales records from 130 gas stations because of similar complaints.

Even in Atlanta, a city notorious for long commutes and traffic, some drivers were turning to public transportation. Although the MARTA bus and subway system did not have ridership numbers for September, a spokeswoman said parking lots at stations were busier than usual.

As she waited in a gas line at an Atlanta station, 27-year-old Kasheeda Washington said she planned to start taking the bus because driving from her home in suburban Marietta to two jobs in Atlanta and to classes at the downtown campus of Georgia State University had become too expensive.

"I would have never thought this day would come when I would have to wait for gas," she said.