Gas stations fill up as shortage fears fuel rising costs

Average is $2.68 a gallon, but some hit $3 a gallon

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Sangiv Suri has been ringing up sale after sale for the past three days at his East Baltimore Hess gas station, but the cars keep coming.

Many station operators have reported that they are selling double and triple their normal amounts of fuel recently. Motorists have flocked to top off their tanks, fearful that shortages caused by Hurricane Katrina will push prices higher, or worse, empty their local filling station. The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline nationwide tabulated by the motor club AAA was $2.68, up several cents from the day before and up 83 cents from a year ago, but many stations were selling it for well over $3 yesterday.

Although comparisons were drawn nationally to oil crises of the 1970s yesterday, the most severe problems were centered in the storm-stricken states. In Jackson, Miss. some stations never opened. Some that did were protected by police and had lines 100-cars long. Elsewhere in the country, including in Maryland, were sporadic reports of lines of cares waiting to gas up and stations that had run out of fuel, but most motorists seemed able to purchase - if somewhat grudgingly - gasoline for roughly $3 a gallon.

U.S. Energy Department officials said they could not say which stations or localities faced shortages, but said damage from Katrina curtailed about 1 million barrels of gasoline a day, or 10 percent of the nation's typical consumption. Further, major pipelines that deliver fuel from the Gulf of Mexico region to the East Coast, Midwest and Gulf Coast regions were knocked off line and are just returning to partial service.

Areas with low inventories before the storm were likely to have supply issues immediately, officials said.

Many motorists seemed more concerned with prices than supplies, and some station owners like Suri were trying to keep costs down.

"My company is increasing gas prices slowly, and that's why I'm increasing prices slowly," said Suri, who sold a gallon of regular for $2.89 yesterday, 54 cents cheaper than the Crown station across the street. "People shouldn't gouge."

Suri said he had no shortages of fuel, even though he had been selling three times the amount of gas each day for the last three days: 15,000 gallons - up from 5,000 gallons. Police came Wednesday night to help direct traffic that came to his station because the price was lower than others nearby.

One major pipeline company said the situation should improve by this weekend. Colonial Pipeline Co., which delivers a daily average of 100 million gallons of gasoline, home heating oil, jet fuel and other products, said it was running at about one-third of capacity yesterday. Katrina had cut power to the pipelines, which feeds fuel from Gulf region through the eastern United States to New York.

"We continue to work closely with the electric utilities as they re-establish service in Mississippi," David Lemmon, president and chief executive of Colonial, said in a statement. "The devastation from Hurricane Katrina is tremendous."

In Hazelhurst, Miss., Kimberly Moore and her cousin Hope Anderson waited for 2 1/2 hours for gas at a Phillips 66, but when they got to the pump nothing came out. Once electricity was restored, many of the stations in town reopened yesterday and were out of gas shortly after. Some motorists waited at stations that weren't open in the hope that they would.

Anderson had fled to Moore's house from her home in Slidell, La., because of Hurricane Katrina, with her husband, mother, sister, nephew and two sons. She was upset to find problems there, too.

"We're the richest country in the world, and this should not be going on," she said. "That the U.S. can go to Iraq and build the people bridges and give them food off of helicopters - you can do that in Hazelhurst."

An official at AAA said the group had been receiving calls all day yesterday from motorists across the country who feared they would not be able to find enough fuel to drive over the long Labor Day weekend.

Amanda Knittle, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said a lack of immediate information was making it hard for the group to tell motorists where shortages were.

"AAA won't guarantee they won't have trouble finding gas, but we have no reason to believe at this point that there are widespread outages," she said. "Rumors are fueling fears."

Many motorists in the area yesterday said they didn't feel panicked, just frugal.

Anita Heath, a Baltimore City school teacher, said she had $20, so she bought $20 worth of gas for her Dodge mini-van at Suri's Hess.

"I thought about all of those poor people in New Orleans and decided I'm lucky, and I'm not going to stress out about [gas prices]," she said. "But I saw the sign here and pulled in."

It was Suri's sign for $2.89 a gallon, which several motorists decided was the best deal around in East Baltimore.

John Oukowski, a city retiree , said he already had a half-tank in his Honda coup but decided to get gas before the prices went up more.

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