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Gas stations fill up as shortage fears fuel rising costs

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.

"I understand oil output in the Gulf is shut down and the refineries are off, but I think there may be some gouging going on," he said.

A Hess on Route 140 in Westminster that was selling a gallon of regular for $2.88 had drawn a line about a mile long yesterday.

"It's been like this for two days," Hess sales clerk Lisa Rath said of the lines, although the customers seemed generally cheerful and moved quickly.

There has been no problem with the supply, Rath said, but something has been added: A small sticker sign above the pump saying "Cash customers: Please pay first."

"We had to put in pre-pay yesterday, because of the way gas prices are going up," she said, to prevent an anticipated problem with people driving off, although it hadn't materialized.

The BP at the Harper's Choice Village Center in Columbia was bustling, offering $2.99 per gallon. A week ago, it wouldn't have been seen as an especially attractive price, but it was yesterday.

Barbara Keller, of Ashton, filled up her Cadillac at the station yesterday afternoon. She said she witnessed prices at one station in Ashton jump 20 cents in less than six hours, but she said that people are remaining calm.

But there were a small number of stations that ran out of gas yesterday and had to close.

At the BP in Piney Orchard in Anne Arundel County, yellow papers were affixed to each pump that read, "No gas until delivery is made."

Officials continued to encourage motorists to buy only the fuel they need and not contribute to shortages.

In Annapolis, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily waive requirements for reformulated gasoline used in the Baltimore area, Washington suburbs and a handful of other Maryland counties. Virginia authorities also made a request.

"As we all know, the devastating storm on the Gulf Coast has placed added pressures on gasoline supplies across the country," the governor said in a statement. "I want Marylanders to know we will take all appropriate steps to ensure they have access to gasoline today and in the future."

Thomas Baden of Annapolis decided to walk to 30 minutes to work each way because of gas prices.

"I remember when I was 12 years old, it was about 32 cents a gallon," said Thomas Baden of Annapolis. "Now, it's just too expensive."

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Mary Gail Hare, Sheridan Lyons, Melissa Harris, Bradley Olson and Sandy Alexander in Hazelhurst, Miss., contributed to this article.

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