Drivers in the South Still Scrambling for a Tank

More than a week after Hurricane Ike's strike, drivers across the Southeast are still bouncing between dry pumps and shuttered stations in a frustrating hunt for a fill-up — and they're starting to get angry.

There are stations shut down in Nashville, long lines in Atlanta and even fights breaking out in bucolic Blue Ridge mountain towns. In between the soccer moms and NASCAR dads, you'll even find guys who play in the NFL waiting for gas.

"It's really ridiculous. You would have thought by now — four days into it — they would have sorted it out somehow," Ahmard Hall, 28, a fullback with the Tennessee Titans, said Tuesday morning as he waited in a Nashville suburb for his turn at the pump. "You have to go driving around town, wasting gas, to try to find gas."

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Hurricane Ike shut down or reduced work at more than a dozen refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas, an area that accounts for about 20 percent of the nation's gas and diesel production. Among those affected was Exxon Mobil Corp.'s refinery in Baytown, east of Houston, and the nation's largest.

It won't get better until the Gulf Coast refineries disrupted by Ike — and before that, Hurricane Gustav — boot back up and start filling the empty pipelines that lead to thirsty stations. In the meantime, gas station owners are selling whatever shows up from their suppliers — be it regular, premium or super unleaded.

"Some days are better than others. You take what you can get," said Haddon Clark, the vice president at Raleigh-based United Energy, which operates about 75 gas stations in the eastern portion of North Carolina. "We're forced to sell what we can find."

The line was about 40 cars deep Tuesday afternoon at a 20-pump Quik Trip station just north of Atlanta. It was the only spot in the area with gas to sell, and police said they been called in often to referee spats over cutting in line. The station only had regular for $3.98 a gallon — a few cents under the city average of $4.02.

"I actually thought I was going to run out of gas before I found a station that had any," said Jim Elliott, 47, a real estate agent, who waited 45 minutes to spent $100 for 25 gallons for his Hummer.

Mail carrier Chester McClendon, 38, was closing in on empty as he waited for a fill-up. The Quik Trip was a dozen miles off his route, but he motored over after another carrier called him with news the station had gas.

"I knew there was a shortage, but I didn't realize it was to this extent," McClendon said. "For me, it pushes everything back. I was expecting to be done around 4 (p.m.), and now it probably will be more like 5 or 5:30, especially because now I'll also get stuck in traffic."

At Clark's stores in North Carolina, most are selling only regular unleaded — although at any given time, he said, several don't have any gas at all. And without the gas, store owners who count on sales of sodas and snacks to make up for the thin margins on fuel sales are feeling the pitch.

"When someone stops for gas, usually they come in and get something in the store," said Michael Peters, the manager of a BP station in Raleigh. "Now, they drive up and see (gas) is out, and they keep going."

And when they find it, some drivers are willing to fight for it. There were three fights Monday at a Shell station in Asheville, where local officials warned the shortages will continue for at least another week. They curtailed non-emergency driving by county staff, and urged drivers to conserve fuel by cutting unnecessary trips out of their daily routine.

That's the plan for Renee Manuel. The 50-year-old stay-at-home mom was out Sunday, and pulled up to a pump before she realized there was a line stretching around the block. She still had a quarter tank, so she left.

"I've been refusing to (wait in line). I've been staying at home," she said. "I called the doctor's office yesterday and canceled an appointment because I didn't want to take a chance on running out of gas. I only left the house today because I had to."