Mayor Pat McCrory rejected any suggestion Tuesday that he should have rationed gas or otherwise interfered with the marketplace during two weeks of outages and lines at Charlotte's gas pumps.
McCrory's office has received more than 100 e-mails on the issue, many of them critical. Residents have asked why McCrory hasn't limited gasoline purchases, as leaders did in the 1970s. Some accused him of underestimating a problem that has hobbled the community.
“Where are you?” asked one constituent. “This city is running on empty. You should be out there speaking to us.”
“We have a gas crisis! Do you exist?” asked another.
McCrory emphasized that Charlotte was one of several cities with gasoline supply problems, and said another storm could bring more of the same. He said he has made the right choices to minimize panic during a temporary setback.
“We are dependent upon the Gulf Coast supply. When that gets cut off, we are limited to what we can use,” he said. “You can't avoid the short-term pain when a hurricane hits.”
The gasoline shortage showed signs of letting up Tuesday. AAA reported in the early afternoon that one out of five stations had fuel. By late afternoon, an informal Observer survey of about 120 stations showed that more than a third had gas.
The governor's office, which said it considers Charlotte's crisis a top priority, reported Tuesday that more than 70 tankers were headed to the region from cities as far away as Indianapolis.
But questions remained about whether elected officials have done enough to reassure the city and speed its recovery.
In the past week, McCrory held two news conferences in Charlotte amid gubernatorial campaign stops in Raleigh and Asheville. He urged drivers to conserve gasoline, admonished those who topped off tanks and cautioned reporters against creating a panic.
He characterized his role as one of communication, saying he was relaying the most up-to-date information he could get from the U.S. Department of Energy. He also said he made sure the city conserved gas while providing routine services.
But he sent conflicting messages about his power to help the situation. In a meeting with reporters Monday, McCrory said he had rejected the options of setting gas limits or ordering car owners to stagger fill-ups based on odd and even license plates.
“We did consider those, and the feedback that I got [was] that you could actually cause even more, or higher demand in that response,” he said.
In a form letter sent to several constituents, however, McCrory suggested he did not have the power to ration gasoline.
“Unfortunately, since this is a market issue and we are dealing with the after effects of a Hurricane,” he wrote, “there is no statutory power for me as Mayor to create more gas supply or determine who gets gas and when.”
State law allows both mayors and governors to restrict the sale of gasoline during states of emergency, and McCrory said Tuesday that should have been clarified in his letter. But he stood by his decision to appeal to consumers' personal sense of responsibility rather than issue an edict.
“In declaring a sense of emergency, you have to have civil unrest and I don't think we reached that in this community,” he said. He attributed most of the problems to those who were stocking up on gasoline.
“It only took a few to disturb the natural process of demand and supply,” McCrory said.
Renee Hoffman, a spokesperson for Gov. Mike Easley, said it would be unusual for the governor to intervene by declaring a state of emergency in Charlotte.
“Typically governors do not step in and tell a mayor how to run a city,” she said.
In Asheville, which is also suffering from a fuel shortage, Mayor Terry Bellamy considered rationing gas, according to a city spokesperson. But instead she appealed to gas stations to institute voluntary restrictions on purchases – such as a 10-gallon or $25 limit. That seemed to help, so Bellamy didn't declare a state of emergency, said the spokeswoman, Trisha Hardin.
Fuel-starved Charlotte drivers also wondered what city leaders were doing to prevent similar chaos when another Gulf Coast hurricane hits.
“It just seems like there's no plan and nobody's talking about what's going to happen in the future,” said Wendy Porter, who lives near SouthPark.
She said she listened to McCrory's appeal last week to leave the gasoline for those who needed it most, believing that a Friday fuel shipment would alleviate the shortage, as officials promised. But while the shipment came, it has been slow to fill gas stations, and Porter said she had trouble finding gas Monday.
McCrory said he could not think of anything he would have done differently. He said residents all along the Gulf Coast pipeline faced the same situation.
“There are limitations and sacrifices that we have to make up and down the coast,” he said. “You can't just push a button and make gas flow.”
The governor's office said it plans to work with the gasoline companies to better distribute gas throughout the state when supplies are tight.