Panic to blame for gas shortages, locals say

·4 min read

May 15—POWDER SPRINGS — Jimmy Motlagh owns a Valero on Powder Springs Road. On that road, on the 7 mile stretch between East-West Connector and Marietta Parkway, his was the only gas station with regular gasoline Friday afternoon, and he knew why.

He rationed his product.

"I'm outside with two miles of guys, we're directing the traffic, we're doing the $20 max, no gas cans, just for your vehicle, just to get you going," Motlagh, who charged $3 per gallon Friday, said. "The line from the Hurt Road line to here was 20 minutes. ... I was taking their payments, like they do in New York ... (where) you don't pump your own gas."

Kim Gresh, owner of the Cobb-based S.A. White Oil Company, said she began to wonder Wednesday: was the scarcity the result of last week's cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline, which supplies almost 50% of the fuel on the East Coast? Or was it because drivers saw headlines about the cyberattack, panicked and made a run on stations?

So she made a spreadsheet Wednesday of the roughly 125 branded convenience stores her company supplies with gasoline and diesel, to track how quickly they were selling out.

One of those stations received 8,500 gallons of gasoline Wednesday at 4 a.m. That should have lasted the station three days, she said. It ran out in six hours.

Although those are just two examples, their experience suggests the shortage in recent days was as much a function of drivers' panic as it was the stalled pipeline.

"If the world had not panicked, yes, we would have had a little bit of a shortage," Gresh said, "but the panic that ensued so exacerbated this entire situation."

Only one gas station along the East-West Connector had regular gas when an MDJ reporter drove its length Friday afternoon: the RaceTrac just past the highway's intersection with South Cobb Drive. It was selling gas for $2.89 per gallon.

Austell's Khalid Bradshaw stopped there to fill his M109R Suzuki motorcycle with premium gasoline. He said people were overreacting to a minor situation.

"Listen, I lived in New York during Superstorm Sandy, when we had a real gas shortage," he said. "This is temporary, you know. There's no need to go crazy over it. Gas is going to be back.

"I've seen people filling up storage bins. One idiot — you know the laundry basket with the holes in it? One idiot was actually trying to fill that up," he said, laughing.

Other people fueling up had a less relaxed take on the week's market turmoil, saying finding gas had been an ordeal. Smyrna's Kareem Monroe, for example — another motorcyclist — said he had called in advance to make sure the station had fuel and was elated to find out that was, in fact, the case. He said he might fill his other motorcycle at the same station later that afternoon.

Andy Macke, a vice president at Comcast and chair of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee, said the fuel shortage demonstrated the need to reimagine how people in metro Atlanta get around.

"This puts a premium on having multiple ways people can get from point A to point B, whether it's land use planning that allows people to be in a walk(able) environment ... to the creation of transit options for folks, and ideally those are door-to-door options," he said. "We're a long way from that, but I think it just really highlights the need for that."

Gov. Brian Kemp Friday extended through May 22 an executive order he issued last Monday to address the gasoline shortage that began with the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline.

"I continue to ask Georgians to only purchase the fuel they need for essential travel through the upcoming weekend."

The executive order suspended the collection of the state sales tax on gasoline and prohibited price gouging by gas stations. It also lifted the usual weight restrictions on fuel delivery trucks and limits on hours commercial truck drivers can operate.

Gresh said those actions have eased the pain somewhat. But there is still uncertainty as to what kind of fuel she will get, how much of it she'll get, and when.

And yet, she believes consumers have already seen the worst of this particular squeeze. Supply has increased, albeit slowly. Like others, she predicts the market will start to return to normal early next week.

Motlagh has also seen signs of improvement.

That 20-minute line of cars he served New York-style was Wednesday. Since then, the situation has improved, he said, and Friday afternoon, the steady stream of cars at his small, four pump station never spilled out of his parking lot, although an employee continued to help drivers pump their gas and ensure nobody took too much.

Had other stations followed his lead, he said, that could have been the situation everywhere.

"You know, just help, man, help each other," he said. "People don't do that no more."