Tankers began arriving at Charlotte gas stations late Friday afternoon, bearing fuel and the hope of shorter lines and fewer frustrations at the pumps.
But officials warned that the long-awaited large shipment wouldn't immediately end the area's gas crunch, saying the troubles would ease gradually through the weekend.
“The spigot has opened,” AAA Carolinas spokesman Tom Crosby said. “Hopefully, we'll be slowly but surely driving out of this crisis.”
The Colonial Pipeline Co., a 5,500-mile system that carries 95 million gallons of gasoline and other fuels from the Gulf Coast to a dozen states, delivered gas to storage terminals in Charlotte, Selma and Spartanburg on Friday, he said.
From there, tankers began delivering the fuel to local gas stations, Crosby said. He said the tankers were delivering partial loads to several stations at once, rather than filling a single station completely, in an effort to reduce long lines across the region.
By Friday night, AAA estimated that as many as two in five Charlotte-area gas stations had fuel, up from one in seven earlier in the week. The shipments are expected to continue for the next few days, Crosby said.
This week's shortage is a result of hurricanes Ike and Gustav, which hit the Gulf Coast earlier this month, disrupting refinery production. Refineries had enough fuel in reserve to stock Southeastern pumps for about a week, but many stations ran out before the refineries could resume full production.
Four of the 17 Houston-area refineries remain closed, with most others in partial or full operation, AAA said.
Charlotte isn't the only place grappling with a short gas supply, though the area saw the most serious disruptions in the state, with little or no shortages reported in Eastern North Carolina, Crosby said.
Stations were running out of fuel this week in Florida, Tennessee, Virginia and elsewhere, with the Atlanta area feeling particular pressure, the Associated Press reported.
Cities to the north and east escaped the shortage by supplementing their fuel supplies with shipments by barge, AAA officials said.
Lines, traffic backups and scuffles at the pumps dominated in Charlotte on Thursday and Friday, with people in some cases parking at gas stations overnight, waiting near the pumps with their gas gauges on empty.
Around 8:30 Friday morning, a woman in line at a Citgo station in Charlotte's Plaza Midwood neighborhood told others in line she was saving a place for her father, who was on his way with gas cans. The station was selling only premium gas and had a 45-minute wait.
Several customers got out of their cars and began cursing at the woman, who went nose to nose with one man before someone called 911 amid a chorus of car horns. In pouring rain, one man threatened to “hurt” the driver of a Ford F150 who was confused by the line and got to the pump before him. Two police officers arrived and calmed everyone down.
At a Texaco at Independence Boulevard and Sharon Amity Road Friday morning, motorists waiting in line for up to an hour honked horns and yelled at each other. One woman trying to back out of the swarm of cars hit one.
“It's a mess, man,” said LeRoy Talbert of Charlotte, who stepped out of his car for a cigarette break while his girlfriend stayed in line with the car. “This is getting crazy.”
The scene was similar in north Charlotte. Sara Ratclif waited an hour in the rain at a Texaco at North Tryon Street and Bingham Drive to fill her Honda Civic, which she needs to get to her job waiting tables at a SouthPark restaurant.
“If I don't have gas, I can't get to work,” she said, “and if I can't get to work, I don't have money.”
Several motorists spent the night at a Citgo station on Lawyers Road in Mint Hill. About 50 cars were in line at the Gate station, off Sardis Road North in Matthews, but the station had no gas.
Around town, wrecking companies reported a handful of calls from motorists who ran out of gas. One woman's Buick hit empty on John Belk Freeway; the police had her car towed because it was a hazard to other motorists, Eastway Wrecker employees said Friday.
Part of the problem has been the panic that's compelled motorists to top off their tanks, draining the reserves, Crosby said.
Things started to look up Thursday, when Colonial Pipeline Co. told N.C. officials it would deliver large shipments to Carolinas terminals.
By Friday night, lines were already shorter at many area gas stations, Crosby said. Asheville, which had suffered from a shortage since the weekend, prompting community colleges and city offices to close, had started getting shipments, though it's “still tight” there, he said.
AAA officials are urging motorists to wait to fill up unless they have a quarter-tank or less. They said it could take a week or more for things to return to normal across the Southeast and that sporadic gas shortages could continue.
In addition, refineries convert to heating oil and go through a regular maintenance process each fall, which could further affect supplies, Crosby said.
Still, the worst is probably over, he said. “I think at the rate refineries are coming back,” Crosby said, “it won't be an issue.”