The lines are small and life is returning to normal for Charlotte-area drivers. The great gas crisis of 2008 is nearly over.
But what a few weeks it has been. Long lines, short tempers, high prices and few answers.
On Sept. 12, Hurricane Ike hit Texas, temporarily crippling more than a dozen refineries on the Gulf Coast, an area that accounts for about 20 percent of the nation's gas.
What started as an annoyance as gas prices climbed toward $5 a gallon quickly turned to desperation as the region's supply simply dried up.
Drivers waited hours in line, creating traffic jams. Police were dispatched. Dozens of fights were reported and at least one arrest made.
Meanwhile, locals turned their anger toward local leaders. Could more have been done to ease the problem? Why was Charlotte hit so much harder than cities to the east? Can we prevent this from happening again?
These are the questions that state and local leaders will be dealing with long after the crisis has become a distant memory.
In hunt for fuel, region and motorists running on fumes
Charlotte's Mark Snyder left town on the day before Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coast – the same day long lines formed at Charlotte-area gas pumps and supplies dried up.
He returned from his trip early last week – just in time to experience the second round of the gas shortage.
“It was a pretty crazy experience,” Snyder said last week. “I was on fumes, part of the time.”
Snyder and his wife, who live in the Davis Lake community of north Charlotte, left on a trip for Kansas on Sept. 12.
“Everyone had started freaking out already,” Snyder said. “I had about one-third of a tank, so I checked www.gasbuddy.com, and it told me there was gas available at good prices, up around Statesville and Mooresville.”
By the time Snyder got there, the pumps were dry. Eventually, he found gas on Interstate 40, nearing Asheville. “It was the only time I saw gas under $4 a gallon in North Carolina and Tennessee,” he said.
The rest of the trip went smoothly. But then came the return home.
In the Midwest, Snyder was hearing about the gas shortages back in Charlotte.
“We got calls from our friends, telling us to fill up before we got closer to Charlotte,” he said. “So we filled up in South Carolina, where there was plenty of gas and it was inexpensive. It was amazing, as we neared Charlotte. Nobody had any gas. But we made it back.
“It was an adventure.”
Gas crisis took toll on some
It should come as no surprise that in a commuter town like Charlotte, the recent gas crisis hit the workday crowd pretty hard.
The shortage, which lasted more than a week, frayed nerves and forced many to alter their routines. Some joined car pools or rode buses for the first time. Some even shadowed fuel tankers, hoping to follow them to gas.
Jaronica Howard worked from home. Howard, a Wachovia business systems consultant, credited her boss with making it easy for employees to work from home during the crisis.
She said several of her colleagues also worked from home.
“The day before, we had gone out at lunch looking for gas and couldn't find any and we said, ‘This is crazy,'” she said. “Thankfully, we can do our work from home when needed.”
Unfortunately, not all companies had such an option. For example, the shortage hit two local charities hard.
Less than half of its normal clientele could make it to Crisis Assistance Ministry during the shortage, and officials at Friendship Trays, a meals-on-wheels program, were forced to deliver two days of meals on one day, to save their volunteer's gas.
Officials debate way city handles shortage
As lines grew at the gas pump over the last three weeks, Charlotte's mayor appealed to consumers.
Don't top off your tanks, Mayor Pat McCrory said. “We're all impacted by each other's usage.”
He spoke daily with the U.S. Department of Energy, and relayed information to the public about gas shipments.
But some residents said they wanted stronger leadership. Resident Tommy Carlucci said he was annoyed by McCrory's approach.
“It's irritating enough that we can't find gas,” he said. “To have a politician go on TV and tell you, ‘Just relax' … I wanted to strangle him.”
Others suggested in e-mails that McCrory ration gasoline. Jennifer Roberts, chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners, said she didn't want to sit back and wait.
“I think we can do better,” she wrote to Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton.
By Tuesday, gas stations began to have more fuel. The Department of Energy defended McCrory in an e-mail Wednesday, saying he had been “pro-actively” working with them.
“Gas rationing is not necessary,” wrote a DOE spokesperson. “The market is returning to normal.”
CATS receives bump in midst of depleting gas
When gas hit $4 a gallon, Shaun Ripani still drove his Honda Accord to work.
But when his tank hit empty during Charlotte's gas shortage, Ripani began taking the 48x bus to work each day, from his uptown home to an office park near the Northlake Mall.
Now he has gas again. But he's still taking the bus.
“I have gas now, and it's tough to justify still taking the bus,” said Ripani, a sales engineer. “But it saves me a couple of bucks, it saves more than a gallon a day. It's comforting.”
Ripani is part of what the Charlotte Area Transit System believes is a second gas-driven ridership bump since the start of the summer.
In the first week of September, weekday ridership on the Lynx Blue Line was 15,558. In the last week of September, it had jumped to 16,560, and on Monday and Tuesday it was 17,825.
CATS officials say they are hearing stories about higher bus ridership as well.
“One rider saw a new face on the bus and asked them why they were riding. He said he had driven around looking for gas and couldn't find any,” said Olaf Kinard, a CATS marketing official.
Kinard said he expects some to stick with public transportation, even after they've filled up.
In past gas price jumps, CATS has done surveys and found that 67 percent of the customers who used transit continued to use transit. It's unlikely the system's retention rate will be that high after this gas shortage subsides. But CATS has at least one new customer.
“I have already petitioned CATS for a new stop closer to work,” said Ripani.