Katrina Taking Its Toll on Holiday Drivers

Traffic was light on Atlanta highways Saturday and gas stations that were fortunate enough to have fuel were still charging more than $3 a gallon. In West Virginia, 10 percent of stations ran out of at least one grade of gas. And in Colorado, motorists were encouraged to drive less.

The holiday weekend got off to a bumpy start for some travelers as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (search) continued to take its toll at the pump in many parts of the country five days after the storm ripped through the Gulf Coast.

"I hear a lot of people say they feel guilty going to the beach or going camping when our neighbors in bordering states are affected forever," said Trooper Larry Schnall, a Georgia State Patrol spokesman. "Traffic is light. I've seen very few out-of-state tags today."

For those who did plan to take trips, scattered fuel shortages caused in part by panicked drivers topping off their tanks and record-high prices at stations that did have gas weren't making things fun on the nation's roads.

"Everybody came in here with every car they had and took everything we had in the ground," said Kip Neuhart, manager of a Chevron (CVX) station in Marietta, Ga. "It took a while to get restocked."

When the station did get a shipment of gas on Saturday, a day after running out, it asked only for regular gasoline because not many people were buying mid-grade and premium blends, Neuhart said. The station, which was charging $3.09 a gallon for regular, also was limiting drivers to 10 gallons per vehicle.

Across the street, a BP (BP) station was still out of gas Saturday, though the manager said a shipment was expected in by the afternoon.

Neuhart blamed the fuel shortage on "more rumor and gossip than anything else. People are panicking, and there's no reason for it."

A spokeswoman for Colonial Pipeline Co. (search) , which carries gasoline, home heating oil and jet fuel through points from Houston to New York, said Saturday that the pipeline was at 73 percent capacity on gasoline and distillate lines and expected to be back to normal operations by the end of the holiday weekend.

"The picture is a very good one," spokeswoman Susan Baranski said. "All product is being moved."

Electricity provider Entergy Corp. (ETR) has restored power to some key energy facilities, but eight Gulf Coast refineries and several natural gas processing plants remained out of service at the start of the weekend.

U.S. gasoline production is down by about 40 million gallons a day, or 10 percent of consumption, and it could be weeks before the region's refining capacity is back to normal, analysts said. Before the storm, the Gulf Coast accounted for around 30 percent of U.S. crude production and about 25 percent of its natural gas. A large portion of the oil imported into the U.S. also moves through the region.

Beyond Georgia, panic buying also caused spot shortages at some gas stations in southeastern Wisconsin. At a Chevron station in Miami where premium and mid-grade gas was unavailable, the pumps were covered with white plastic, and only pumps serving regular gas were available. In Alabama, a gasoline shortage could keep some people off the beaches and roads this Labor Day weekend.

While gas prices began to drop over the weekend in West Virginia, about 10 percent of stations in the state were out of at least one grade of gas on Friday, said Jan Vineyard of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association, which represents the majority of the state's 1,300 service stations.

One driver, Phillip Craig, said he had had been trying to hold off until prices fell. "The only reason I came here today was because my wife noticed it was $2.89 on her way home and told me to stop and fill up," he said.

At a Marathon (MRO) gas station near downtown Orlando, Fla., the pumps were vacant Saturday. Plastic bags covered all but a few, $3.19-a-gallon premium pumps at the station, where owner Bibi Razak usually sells 1,200 gallons daily.

"It's definitely hurting business," she said, pointing to her food and drink displays. "No one's coming here to buy the gas, so they don't come here for anything else."

Asked if she knew when the trucks carrying fuel were coming, she shook her head. "My suppliers, even they don't know when they're going to be getting any," Razak said.

In Denver, the advice some travelers were taking as the holiday weekend started was to drive less and switch from premium to regular gasoline.

"I'll just pass up my six-pack and silly little things like that," John Diaz, a 56-year-old Pueblo, Colo., resident said Friday as he filled his pickup at a Denver service station. "But it does cut into what you're going to buy at the grocery store because we need to get around. We have to function."

Not everyone was panicking this holiday weekend. David Cowley, spokesman for AAA Arizona, said the state has an adequate gas supply and that the only stations that have run out of fuel are those that have undercut their competitors' prices. Cowley said his organization was encouraging people to keep their Labor Day travel plans.