Shortage, fear spur long lines at pump

Gas shortages in the Charlotte area persisted Wednesday with distributors rationing supplies and station attendants directing long lines of customers to prevent fender benders and arguments at the pumps.

Even as more Gulf Coast refineries came back online this week, an already-tight Charlotte supply seemed to grow tighter, as some fearful motorists lined up just to top off their tanks.

The N.C. governor's staff said late Wednesday that gas delivered to the state is down 30 percent. But it's worse in Charlotte and most severe in the N.C. mountains, where life stalled as some drivers waited hours for gas and others simply stayed home from work and school.

“I have never seen it like this,” said Pam Dougherty, a Concord nurse, who decided to buy gas Wednesday because she worried she'd miss out. “I've been here since '92 and I can't recall a storm ever causing this problem before.”

Lines stretched more than 20 cars long Wednesday night at stations along U.S. 521 south of Ballantyne. Other stations had no gas.

Major oil companies pledged Wednesday to deliver more gas to North Carolina, with some directed to the hardest hit mountain counties of Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Polk, Rutherford and Transylvania, said Gov. Mike Easley's policy director Alan Hirsch.

The mountains have been particularly hard hit because they have a higher percentage of independently owned gas stations. They don't generally have long-term contracts with distributors and are given a lower priority during shortages, Hirsch said.

The companies have already begun shipping more gas to North Carolina through Knoxville, Tenn., and on barges through Wilmington, he said. That port is unloading 10 times its normal amount, he said.

Some of those supplies are bound for Charlotte, and oil industry officials predict the region should be back to normal by early October.

Gas coming into Charlotte and Western North Carolina is usually delivered through two pipelines that originate in the Gulf Coast and are fed by oil refineries. But since Hurricane Ike struck Sept. 13, some refineries are still shut down.

Part of the problem has been fearful drivers gassing up before they really need to, said Carol Gifford, a AAA Carolinas spokeswoman.

With half a tank, Meghan McGinn waited in line at the Shell station at Cherokee and Providence roads late Wednesday morning. In normal times, she would drive closer to empty, but she wanted a full tank to feel secure. She knew she might be part of the problem: But “if everyone wasn't freaking out, I wouldn't worry about it. If everyone only got what they needed, it would be fine.”

The car ahead of her got the last few gallons at about 11 a.m.

The station, like others in Charlotte, ran through its morning delivery by lunch. The station attendant, who slipped orange bags over the pumps, said supply since Ike is down 30 percent to 40 percent but demand is up 50 percent.

Mecklenburg County doesn't track how many stations run out daily. But Lincoln County reported 12 of 32 dry Wednesday morning and most stations along busy N.C. 127 in Hickory were also out of fuel.

Dougherty, the Concord nurse, skipped filling up on her way to work at Carolinas Medical Center, she said, but changed her mind on her drive home as she passed a station with a long line.

Experts say a pack mentality can emerge in a crisis.

Gregory Berns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine and author of a new book about breaking away from the “herd mentality,” said the human brain is hard-wired to follow the pack when people feel threatened.

Topping off the tank is a prime example, he said. It has turned a minor shortage into a problem for a big group of drivers in the Southeast, he said.

“That's the thing about herd behavior and panic – once everyone else is doing it, you can argue that it's irrational not to fall in step. You have to resist the urge to do something simply out of fear – it ultimately contributes to the detriment of everyone, including yourself.”

But he said the brain is also wired to break from the herd when just one person presents a strong case against the pack, some leadership and logic.

“Our politicians have been lacking in those areas.”

Staff writers Mike Torralba, Dan Duffey, Joe Marusak, Kevin Cary and Doug Miller, and the Associated Press contributed.