Fuel Shortage Threatens Weekend Plans Across Southeast

This is how serious the Southeastern gas shortage has become: There's talk of calling off college football.

Not serious talk, of course. A petroleum executive's suggestion that No. 3 Georgia postpone its Saturday night game against No. 8 Alabama was quickly dismissed Friday by the Georgia governor's office as "ridiculous."

But the university's police chief did suggest fans who can't make a round trip to Sanford Stadium on a single tank stay home.

Weeks after Hurricane Ike shut down Gulf Coast refineries and dried up interstate pipelines, some panicked drivers are still waiting in long lines to top off their tanks at the few stations with fuel.

Many across the Southeast are keeping their cars in the garage this weekend, forced to cancel plans for fear they'll run out of gas.

"I don't have any assurance that I'm gonna even be able to get more than $30 worth of gas," said Wendy Stewart, 37, a bank manager from Atlanta who had planned to drive to Charlotte. "How am I gonna get out of town and drive five hours on $30 of gas? I can't do it."

Brittany Hoisington, a 19-year-old veterinary assistant from Raleigh, decided weeks ago to travel to Asheville with her grandfather to visit her uncle. She hasn't seen her uncle in five years, and now the reunion will have to wait.

"I figure it might not be a good idea to go there if there's no way to get gas," Hoisington said. "How would we get home?"

The gas shortage has hit hardest in Atlanta, Nashville, Tenn., and the Carolinas, including the Charlotte area and the mountain towns to the west. For days it has closed civic offices, cut short workdays and even canceled community college classes.

Despite promises that more fuel may have already arrived, the shortage appears likely to continue to intrude on personal time, threatening college football homecomings, spins through the mountains to check out fall foliage and even a last warm-weather weekend at the beach.

"People have called saying, 'If I get there, can I get back?"' said Brad Dean, the president of the chamber of commerce in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where gas is plentiful.

Worried drivers have jammed the phone lines all week at the Florida offices of AAA Auto Club South to ask if they should cancel plans. Those who can't, said spokesman Randy Bly, should budget extra time to search for gas and start hunting when their fuel gauge starts to drop.

"What I tell people is if I had the option, I would not go anywhere this weekend," Bly said.

Ironically, those warnings are exacerbating the shortage. Tom Crosby, a spokesman for AAA Carolinas, said more than two-thirds of the Gulf Coast oil refineries shut down by Ike are back online. Fuel is again flowing in the pipelines that serve the hardest-hit areas, he said, but not enough to account for folks rushing to top off their tanks when an empty station is resupplied.

"It's like ants to a picnic and they feed until it's all gone," Crosby said.

He and state officials said supply issues in western North Carolina should subside by Saturday, but such promises aren't always enough for innkeepers as they try to soothe customers worried they won't be able to make it back home from a mountain getaway.

"We have had some cancellations," said Ron Storto, the vice president of hospitality for Biltmore Farms Hotels, which operates four hotels in Asheville. "It's the uncertainty of it that's got people on edge."

Some aren't bothered by the shortage. In Kentucky, state police said a motorcycle fundraising ride scheduled for Sunday — postponed once already — will proceed as planned. Officials at North Carolina State and Wake Forest universities chuckled at the idea of calling off their weekend football games.

Even in places that have gas, cost is still a concern. Mandy Roberts, of Pleasant View, Tenn., had planned to drive with her husband and 9-year-old son to Tuscaloosa, Ala., next weekend to watch Alabama host Kentucky. But they sold their tickets, unable to afford the drive.

"I'm disappointed. This would have been my son's first game," said Roberts, 29. "He's starting to take an interest, and it would have been neat for him to see it in-person. Maybe next year."