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N.Y. fuel shortage means gridlock for gasoline

Published: Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
People line up at a gas station Friday waiting to fill up in Newark, N.J. In parts of New York and New Jersey, drivers lined up early for hours at gas stations that were struggling to stay supplied. The power outages and flooding caused by Superstorm Sandy have forced many gas stations to close and disrupted the flow of fuel from refineries to those stations that are open.

NEW YORK – When it came to fuel supplies and patience, the New York metro area was running close to empty Friday.

From storm-scarred New Jersey to parts of Connecticut, a widespread lack of gasoline or electricity to pump it brought grousing, gridlock and worse, compounding frustrations as millions of Americans struggled to return to normal days after Superstorm Sandy. A man pulled a gun in one gas-line fracas that led to an arrest.

Lines of cars, and in many places queues of people on foot carrying bright red jerry cans for generators, waited for hours for the precious fuel. And those were the lucky ones. Other customers gave up after finding only closed stations or dry pumps marked with yellow tape or “No Gas” signs.

“EMPTY!” declared the red-type headline dominating the New York Daily News’ front page.

“I drove around last night and couldn’t find anything,” said a relieved Kwabena Sintim-Misa as he finally prepared to fill up Friday morning in Fort Lee, N.J., near the George Washington Bridge, where the wait in line lasted three hours.

Arlend Pierre-Louis of Elmont, on Long Island, said he woke at 4:30 a.m. to try to get gas.

When he finally found some – “the one working pump in Elmont” – the line was so long he gave up and returned home, which still has no light or hot water.

At a Hess gas station in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, the 10-block line caused confusion among passing drivers.

“There’s been a little screaming, a little yelling. And I saw one guy banging on the hood of a car,” said Vince Levine, who got in line in his van at 5 a.m. and was still waiting at 8 a.m. “But mostly it’s been OK.”

While the snaking lines and frayed nerves revived memories for some of the crippling Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, a cabdriver stuck in a 17-block line at a Manhattan station remained philosophical.

“I don’t blame anybody,” said Harum Prince. “God, he knows why he brought this storm.”

Many tried to heed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s admonition to “have some patience” as the stricken metro area recovers from the unprecedented storm that upended daily life with power outages, food shortages and other frustrations besides lack of fuel.

But tempers boiled over in some places.

Arguments in gas station queues in New York’s Queens borough and in Pelham led to arrests, authorities said. In the first case, a man pulled a gun, and in the second police confiscated a box cutter. No one was hurt.

Power outages that lingered across the region prevented some gas stations that had fuel from being able to pump it, officials said. But fuel supplies themselves were badly disrupted by the storm.

Sandy damaged ports that accept fuel tankers and flooded underground equipment that sends fuel through pipelines. Without power, fuel terminals can’t pump gasoline onto tanker trucks, and gas stations can’t pump fuel into customers’ cars.

The Port of New York and New Jersey was slowly starting to accept tankers, but some cargo was being diverted to the Port of Virginia. Federal requirements for low-smog gasoline have been lifted, and fuel trucks are on their way to the area.

Officials said they were working to speed the flow of fuel.

On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano temporarily waived a maritime rule to allow foreign oil tankers coming from the Gulf of Mexico to enter Northeastern ports. The action, she said, would “remove a potential obstacle to bringing additional fuel to the storm-damaged region.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, signed an executive order waiving the state’s requirement that fuel tankers register and pay a tax before unloading.

Tankers, he said Friday, are now making “great progress” delivering fuel to distribution centers.

“No reason to panic,” the governor urged.

Bloomberg told reporters Friday that the gas-supply issues “are starting to be alleviated” through the temporary regulatory fixes and other developments. He noted a plan is in place to ensure that police, fire and other emergency vehicles have the fuel they need. Buses, including school buses, are also a priority.

“But the bottom line is that the gasoline system is getting back on its feet,” he said.

Delays due to storms, the mayor added, “have happened before. They spring up very quickly, and they go away very quickly. We basically have a supply system – as it comes in we use it. If it stops coming in, we’re in trouble.”

But keeping perspective could be a challenge as the gas lines lengthened.

Many service centers along the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike were so full that cars trying to pass at highway speeds sometimes had to swerve to avoid them.

One New Jersey town, Belleville, passed an emergency ordinance that rations gas: Effective Monday, people with odd numbered license plates (or driver’s licenses for individuals filling gas containers) will only be allowed to get gas on odd-numbered days; even-numbered plates on even-numbered days.

In Connecticut, traffic jams created by New Yorkers exiting from Interstate 95 to take advantage of the stations that were open were “making it difficult for everybody,” said Greenwich police Lt. Kraig Gray.

Police monitored lines in many places, including a Hess station in Fort Lee, N.J., where an officer was seen ordering a man out of line after sneaking in from a side street.

Among those waiting there, Kenneth Kelly of Englewood Cliffs took it all in stride.

“It ain’t that bad. I could be in Queens,” he said, referring to the confrontations there. “I’ve seen a lot of bad in my life, people getting sick and things like that. This is what I call an inconvenience. Now, losing something like a house, that would be bad.”

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