Drivers still face long gas lines, short supply

Long searches and even longer lines plagued Charlotte area motorists Saturday as the region continued to cope with the gas shortage caused by Hurricane Ike.

And there is no sign of improvement today, with most gas stations dry and lines forming at the few stations with fuel.

For the first time, the gas shortage is causing a postponement of activities.

More than two weeks after that storm shut down Gulf Coast refineries, and two days after word came that the region would receive enough gas to alleviate some of its struggles, the Charlotte area continued to operate on about half of its normal fuel supply.

"We have made a little progress, but not as much as we'd hoped," said Tom Crosby, AAA Carolinas spokesman. "The question now is will things start returning to normal Monday?"

If Sunday is any indication, the prospects are not good. Messages from readers and a check of some service stations show that the situation remains largely unchanged from Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday -- no gas, at most stations.

For some people, attending today's Carolina Panthers home game against the Atlanta Falcons might be an adventure, especially for fans driving from outside the Charlotte area.

At one area church, St. Luke Catholic Church in Mint Hill, the lack of gas caused officials to cancel religious education classes scheduled tonight and again Monday through Wednesday.

Crosby said more than two-thirds of the Gulf Coast oil refineries shut down by Ike are back online. Fuel is again flowing.

But he said that only about 20 percent of the area's more than 300 stations were selling gas Saturday. Crosby estimated the region was receiving between 40 and 50 percent of its normal amount of fuel.

"It will keep coming up incrementally," he said.

The gas shortage has hit cities across the Southeast, including Atlanta, Nashville, Tenn., and several cities in the Carolinas.

Hardest hit in North Carolina have been cities in the west. Some cities in the mountains closed offices, cut workdays short and even canceled classes.

The problem locally has been so bad that some leaders believe the city needs to start working on ways to lessen the effect of future outages.

City council member John Lassiter said Saturday that Charlotte will analyze its response and see if some things could have been done better. At the least, he said, the city needs to investigate the fuel distribution network to see why Charlotte was hit so much harder than cities in the east. AAA has said it received few reports of fuel shortages east of Greensboro.

"It has been very uneven," Lassiter said. "We should not struggle more than the rest of the state."

On Saturday, some local motorists decided to conserve gas by keeping their cars parked. Others took to the streets in search of fuel.

Most were greeted with long, frustrating drives. When they finally found gas, they found long lines. While it seemed the lines Saturday were shorter than in previous days, as late as 7 p.m. Saturday, Piper Glen Exxon off Rea Road had more than 50 cars still waiting for gas.

Angela Crowder left her home near Matthews and drove all the way to the Petro Express on Charlottetown Avenue before finding gas. She spent more than an hour in line. Her two kids played hand-held video games in the back seat.

"I didn't want to come out today, but I was nearly out of gas," Crowder said. "I was hoping the gas we'd heard about would be here by now. It doesn't look like it to me."

Part of the problem Saturday was that any gas trucked in was quickly purchased. Many gas stations sold out in a matter of hours.

The Exxon on South Kings Drive ran out of gas twice. Ronnie Rollins, a store employee, said it has been a tough week. He said inside sales have dried up too and the store has closed early all week.

"It's hurting my paycheck," Rollins said. "I guess it's hurting everybody."

Observer staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed.