Gas Stations Slammed By Demand After Sandy

Gas stations in New Jersey and New York struggled to keep up with demand from those affected by Sandy. Drivers and homeowners scrambled to find fuel for their cars and generators as stations begin to run dry. Many stations cannot pump gas without power, and fuel trucks also struggled to get around in the aftermath of the storm.

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Gasoline deliveries soon could become more regular at other gas stations. That's because the Obama administration has now ordered the Pentagon to purchase up to 22 million gallons of extra fuel that will be delivered to the region. So why is gasoline in such short supply to begin with and so few stations selling it? Well, NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has the big picture on the fuel shortage.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: The storm shut down refineries. It stole power from gas stations and the main pipeline that brings fuel from the Gulf of Mexico. But its biggest blow was to the part of the fuel supply system that most people never think about: the massive tanks where companies store tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. Several of them were damaged and many more in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were flooded and lost power. Industry expert Denton Cinquegrana says this has created a huge distribution problem.

DENTON CINQUEGRANA: The entire system right now is just absolutely snarled. I think that's the best way to describe it. It's come to a screeching halt.

SHOGREN: The federal government is trying to help. It waived something called the Jones Act, so foreign-flagged ships now can transport fuel from the Gulf of Mexico to the New York area. But expert say that there's plenty of fuel in the region. There was a three-week supply when the storm hit.

CHARLES DREVNA: Once you get it to that area, you can't get it to the customer.

SHOGREN: Charlie Drevna is the president of the refining industry's trade group.

DREVNA: Putting a Jones Act ship in New York harbor with no way to unload it is not going to relieve the problem of consumers at service stations. We need to get the floodwaters receded and the electricity up and running so we can get the product to the consumer.

SHOGREN: Industry consultant Martin Tallett says that's because of all the closed storage facilities.

MARTIN TALLETT: They're a very quiet part of the industry, but the storage terminals are critical.

SHOGREN: They collect fuel from refineries, ships and big pipelines. And they send it out into the region by barges, tanker trucks and small pipelines. On the East Coast, most petroleum storage terminals are located in or near ports. Some of the ones affected by the storm have reopened or are expected to in the next couple of days. But major terminals are still closed: in Newark and Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Brooklyn and Riverhead, New York, and Groton, Connecticut.

TALLETT: And what this storm has shown with its, what, 14-foot tidal surge in the area is that a lot of the terminals are really vulnerable.

SHOGREN: At least one of the terminals was badly damaged, so much so that two tanks spilled nearly 300,000 gallons of diesel into nearby waterways. Coast Guard Chief Ryan Egal is overseeing the cleanup at a facility in Sewaren, New Jersey. He says there's a big hole near the bottom of one enormous cylindrical tank. Skimming boats and vacuum trucks are trying to clean up the oil. But it's challenging work. The waterways and the shore are strewn with pieces of boats and docks and all kinds of stuff.

CHIEF RYAN EGAL: So they're cleaning up oil around all this debris from the hurricane.

SHOGREN: The facility is owned by Shell and Saudi Refining. Shell says it's trying to find other sources of fuel for its customers. But at last count, half of its filling stations were closed in New Jersey. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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