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What's causing crisis? Answers are few

By Clay Barbour
cbarbour@charlotteobserver.com

Fuel may be on its way to Charlotte today, but answers are still in short supply as the region struggles with its worst fuel crisis in memory.

The U.S. Department of Energy and Colonial Pipeline Co. confirmed Thursday that an “extremely large shipment” of gasoline would arrive in the Queen City today.

Officials could not say how much would be delivered or how long it would last, but they did say it should alleviate many of the problems plaguing the region the past few days.

Thursday was the most frustrating and volatile day since Hurricane Ike disrupted the Southeast's gas supply two weeks ago. The short supply forced some workers and students to stay home, and led to long gas lines, short tempers and at least one arrest.

Officials still can't explain why Charlotte has been hit so hard, but an Observer analysis of state data shows Mecklenburg County has the fewest gas stations and pumps per capita of any large urban area in the state.

Mecklenburg, with the largest population in the state, has 2,727 residents per gas station or about 116 residents per pump. Compare that with Wake's 2,245 residents per station and 105 residents per pump.

Bill Tome, owner of Charlotte's Mark Oil Co., said the number of gas pumps could contribute to the county's longer lines. But installing more pumps, he said, is not the answer. The current gas supply problem is extremely rare.

“It's like preparing for a 100-year flood,” he said.

State officials say gas supplies are down about 30 percent across the state.

The persistent shortage has frayed nerves and forced many to alter their routines. Some joined carpools or rode buses for the first time. Some even shadowed fuel tankers, hoping to follow them to gas.

Mostly people sat in lines that sometimes took hours and wrapped around stations, creating traffic jams and leading to fistfights. A Taylorsville man was arrested after police said he pulled a .45-caliber pistol on another drive at a gas station.

Police said no serious injuries were reported Thursday.

“Just a lot of jawing, mostly,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe, who sent officers to keep order at busy stations.

Charities were also hit hard. Officials with Crisis Assistance Ministry said turnout of people seeking financial aid Thursday was down 50 percent.

“People have been calling us saying ‘I can't get there. I can't put gas in my car,' ” said executive director Carol Hardison.

Friendship Trays, a meals-on-wheels program, doubled its Thursday deliveries to skip today's visits.

Some UNC Charlotte students phoned teachers saying they won't get to class today. And some colleges in the N.C. mountains canceled classes today and Saturday.

Mountain counties were hit hardest this week and were expected to receive extra gas late Thursday.

In Charlotte, Mayor Pat McCrory and Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Jennifer Roberts held a news conference Thursday to calm the public.

“Now is not the time to panic,” McCrory said.

He couldn't say why Charlotte has been hit so hard, harder even than it was during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He did say the problems could be fueled by panic.

Tome, the owner of Mark Oil Co., also struggled to explain why Charlotte has been hit so hard. He supplies 38 area BP stations and said he is only getting 70 percent of his normal fuel delivery.

It should be enough to get by in times of crisis, but “the people are sucking it up faster than I can put it out there.”

All but the easternmost part of North Carolina receives its gasoline from refineries in Texas and Louisiana. The gas is pumped to terminals in Charlotte, Greensboro and Selma, near Raleigh, where it is pumped into storage tanks leased by gas companies.

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike shut down the refineries, which can take about 10 days to return to full operation. Before the hurricanes hit, the refineries filled their storage tanks, which helps the tanks better withstand the storm.

“What that meant was that after the hurricane passed, they had full tanks to send through the pipeline,” said Alan Hirsch, policy director for Gov. Mike Easley, “but that (gasoline) gets used up before the refinery gets into full operation again.”

That may help explain why the shortage intensified days after the hurricanes, he said. “While some areas of North Carolina had no shortage at all, (western N.C.) had a dire situation,” he said.

Steve Baker, a spokesman for the Colonial Pipeline Co., which delivers most of Charlotte's gas, said the city shouldn't be any worse off than other major cities on the line. He said deliveries are based on longstanding schedules with oil companies and wholesalers.

“This shortage could be about buying patterns,” he said. “I can't prove it, but the way it's set up, there are no red-headed stepchildren on the pipeline.”

Staff writers Greg Lacour, Mark Johnson, Steve Lyttle, Kirsten Valle, Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Victoria Cherrie, Kathleen Purvis, and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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