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Long lines at gas pumps remain

POSTED: October 3, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Kroger employees Melissa Dilbeck, right, and Dusty Bittinger keep cars organized Monday morning as drivers wait in line to buy regular unleaded gas.

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A problem that was predicted to begin improving by the end of the weekend was still evident Monday as long lines spilled out of the few gas stations in Gainesville with gasoline.

A supply that normally would have lasted the Chestatee Food Mart on Dawsonville Highway three days was gone in six hours Monday morning when the Food Mart was the only store in sight that had gasoline.

The store’s owner, Sonny Patel, said he expects to receive another delivery of gasoline from his supplier, Clipper Petroleum, in the next two days.

As Patel’s employees started placing plastic bags over the empty fuel pumps Monday morning, Tim Smith snagged some of the last of the store’s supply.

Smith, who said he waited in line for about 10 minutes to get gasoline, has been out of work on disability and able to escape a need for fuel lately.

"I got lucky I got hurt right when the economy hit the crapper and gas went to hell," Smith said.

Smith’s wife still purchased a little extra gasoline for their car than he had expected to buy. Jill Smith paid for $40 worth of the commodity instead of $20.

"I’m just scared," she said. "You just don’t know when you can find it anymore, and usually when you find it, they ration it out."

Officials are estimating that the area’s fuel situation could not return to normal until mid-October. But the situation could be eased by an announcement that Colonial Pipeline Co. — the company that owns the gasoline pipeline that serves the Atlanta area and most of Georgia — returned to its pre-hurricane gasoline flow rate Monday.

After hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit the Gulf Coast refining region earlier this month, Colonial’s pipeline quickly returned to full capacity, but supply shortages still occurred as a result of damage and shutdowns suffered by Louisiana and Texas oil refineries impacted by the storms.

The Colonial Pipeline system begins in Houston and crosses the South and East before terminating at the New York harbor.

Evidence of the pipeline’s higher fuel flows may have been QuikTrip’s announcement on Monday that it was working to return fuel supply to 100 percent of its stores by mid-week. The company, with 111 stores in Georgia, had been operating on a plan to keep fuel at 50 percent of its stores, for about a week.

A spokesman for QuikTrip, Mike Thornbrugh, said he was "guardedly optimistic" that the company could return to operating all of its Georgia stores by Wednesday, and the company had made the decision to return to normal because of indications that more fuel was becoming available.

"We wouldn’t do that if we didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel," Thornbrugh said.

Although, the company is returning to its normal schedule, there will still be some spot outages as the fuel market stabilizes "but I don’t think it’s going to be nearly as severe as we’ve seen," Thornbrugh said.

Thornbrugh said that as more stores get fuel, some of the panic at the pumps may subside, and consumers like Cedric Randolph of Gainesville will stop feeling the need to stockpile gasoline or top off their tanks whenever they see gasoline available.

Randolph, who drives 600 miles per week for his job, filled his gas tank at the Gainesville QuikTrip Monday afternoon, even though it was half-full.

The textile plant manager said he has been getting gasoline every two days instead of every four, because he is afraid to let his tank get low.

"I don’t know when I can get it again," Randolph said. "... I’m not buying any more than I normally do — I’m just buying it more often."

Earlier Monday morning at Chestatee Food Mart, the Hayes family pumped the last of the Chestatee Food Mart’s gasoline into their minivan after they filled five- and two-gallon cans.

"We’re buying as much as we can squeeze (out of this pump)," Veronnica Hayes said.

The Hayes said they were not stockpiling gasoline, rather they were purchasing gasoline for two vehicles they had at home that both had nearly empty fuel tanks. Those vehicles may not have been able to survive the 10-minute wait at the gas pump.

"We didn’t know if we’d be able to drive them to the store without them running completely out," Veronnica Hayes said.

There are some cars that have not had enough fuel for the long lines at area gas stations, and more than one car was pushed to a pump at the QuikTrip on U.S. 129 at Interstate 985 Monday afternoon.

With a sporadic supply, some motorists have had to call 911 or AAA when their cars have run out of gasoline.

Marty Nix, director of the county’s 911 dispatch center, says it’s policy to send someone to help any motorist in distress.

"If somebody needs help, we’re going to send them help," Nix said.

But what 911 dispatchers cannot help with is finding stations with gasoline, Nix said, and there have been multiple reports of people in the Atlanta area calling 911 to ask which stations have gasoline.

It was such an issue in Douglasville that Douglas County authorities issued a statement reminding people that 911 was only for emergency calls, and operators have no way of knowing which stations have gas.

"We don’t have access to that information," Hall County’s Nix said. "Even if we did have the information, by the time we sent them over there ... they’ll probably be out of gas."

Gainesville’s gas shortage resulted in at least 12 calls to the county’s 911 center for disputes over people cutting in line, and Hall County Sheriff’s deputies have had to help move lines along that have backed into roads from gas station parking lots, Col. Jeff Strickland said.

Chestatee Food Mart’s Patel said he feels lucky to have a supplier that is consistent and communicates with him. Clipper Petroleum has delivered between 5,000 and 6,000 gallons of gasoline to his store every other day since two hurricanes shut down refineries and limited the fuel supply more than two weeks ago, he said.

But it has been a while since Patel received a full delivery of 30,000 gallons as distributors have rationed supplies among retailers.

The situation with the area’s fuel supply caused Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to issue a statement Monday that he would continue to keep pressure on the oil industry to improve supply problems in the metro-Atlanta area.

At the news conference, Cagle said he was encouraged because he was seeing the area’s fuel supply increase, but that he would make sure that the supply would come to Georgia instead of to other areas where it may be more profitable for oil companies to send it.

"Although things are beginning to improve ... we need to continue to keep the pressure on the industry to make sure that all the supply that we can possibly get available to the Atlanta region needs to be a top priority," Cagle said.

The fuel supply is improving in other areas that were also hard-hit with fuel shortages such as Augusta and Nashville, Tenn., said Randy Bly, AAA Auto Club South spokesman.

"I think these things will improve by the end of this week," Bly said.

Other reports say that the area’s fuel supply situation may not return to normal until mid-October, but Bly calls those estimates a "worst-case scenario" that gives refineries time to bounce back from the storm’s impact.

"Normal may come in two weeks," Bly said. "It’s just a very long process. ... It’s not just a matter of flipping the switch (on the power at the refineries) and there’s the fuel."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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