Gas pumps ran dry and prices spiked more than 50 cents within a few hours at some stations Friday, as Charlotte-area drivers feared shortages and out-of-control prices today because of Hurricane Ike.
Stations around Charlotte posted signs and covered pumps with white plastic bags as Ike headed toward the Texas coast – home to critical refinery and pipeline operations.
A direct blow from Ike to Gulf Coast operations that supply the Carolinas with gas could drive prices even higher and crimp supply for weeks. But prices could start falling within days if Ike avoids inflicting major damage to the region, home of one-fifth of the nation's refining capacity.
Some drivers awoke Friday to news that some Charlotte stations were asking customers to limit purchases to 10 gallons. Other stations followed suit Friday as fear and simple economics conspired to deplete supply and drive up prices.
Just the threat of Ike was already affecting price and supply on Thursday, and it accelerated Friday.
New deliveries at higher wholesale prices prompted some price increases, with many stations early in the afternoon moving prices to more than $4. At several stations Friday evening, the price was closer to $5.
At three stations in Belmont, a gallon of regular was $4.59 Friday evening. The AAA average for the Charlotte area Thursday was $3.71.
“I'm pretty freaked out,” said Travis Talbot, a 25-year-old restaurant worker who filled his Toyota Camry at a Sam's Mart Shell station in Eastover on Friday afternoon. “I just try to stay at home. It's money. You're consuming money.”
The station at Cherokee and Providence roads ran out of gas in the morning after a storm of traffic from 6 to 9 a.m. Its usual shipment, a day late, arrived in the early afternoon, and the resupplied station hiked its price to $4.29 from its posted price of $3.99.
The new prices rippled through the Charlotte-area market all day with station owners who still had cheaper gas in their underground tanks moving their prices up.
Wholesale prices have jumped between 35 cents and $1.60 a gallon, said Frank McNeill Jr., a member of the N.C. Petroleum & Convenience Marketers Association's board of directors. That's led to the rising prices for customers – and disparity at the pumps in Charlotte and around the state, said McNeill, who is also president of McNeill Oil Co. in Aberdeen, near Pinehurst.
In Greensboro Friday, there was $1.60 difference in the area's highest and lowest gas prices, McNeill said. He defended station owners, saying they aren't necessarily gouging customers; they're just working with a limited supply. Even if the Gulf Coast oil refineries make it through the hurricane unscathed, they could be without power to start operating again, he said.
His prediction on prices: “I think they're going to top out here, and if, through the weekend, things aren't too bad, they'll start to come down.”
Memories of Hurricane Katrina three years ago and the nation's crippled gasoline distribution network pushed drivers and government into planning mode.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department told its officers early Friday to keep cruisers topped off in case Ike disrupts refineries and pipeline operations as Katrina did three years ago.
Back then, more than 20 percent of Mecklenburg County's 230 gas stations shut down at one point and supplies were tight for weeks as power outages disrupted operations of the Southeast's two main gas pipelines, the Colonial and Plantation pipelines. They move petroleum products out of the Gulf Coast and supply almost all of Charlotte's gas.
The Colonial pipeline was already partially shut down Friday evening because of fuel shortages. It wasn't shipping diesel or jet fuel because of evacuation of employees and supply shortages. Owners of the Plantation pipeline were preparing for the worst.
“If refineries don't have any product then there's nothing for us to move,” said Larry Pierce, spokesman for Houston-based Plantation Pipe Line Co. “It's impossible to predict.”
At least 13 refineries had shut down or were powering down Friday evening as Ike prepared to strike.
Gov. Mike Easley on Friday declared a state of “abnormal market disruption,” which charges the N.C. attorney general with enforcing the state's price-gouging statute. The law prohibits charging of prices that are “unreasonably excessive.” He urged motorists to conserve gasoline.
At Mark Oil Co., which supplies about 40 BP stations in and around Charlotte, gasoline supply was down 20 percent over the past 11/2 weeks, operations manager Kurt Craig said.
The supply dropped initially because of Hurricane Gustav. Now, Ike is compounding the problem, he said. As a result, gas prices jumped 35 percent Thursday night, and customers started rushing local stations, he said.
Friday early evening at the Texaco station on West Trade Street at Interstate 77 cars lined up for what the attendant said were probably the last few gallons left in the station's tank. His boss had called and ordered a price increase to $4.29, the attendant said.
Outside in line, Josephine Autry filled her late-model sedan, afraid of escalating prices or dwindling supply. “I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to make it,” said the retired 67-year-old. Staff writers Mark Price and Ann Doss Helms, the Associated Press and The (Columbia) State contributed to this article.