Gas Shortages Stalled Houston Evacuation

Gas shortages stranded thousands of Houston motorists as they attempted to evacuate the city before Hurricane Rita's landfall. John McChesney examines whether the crisis could have been avoided — and what gas stations are now doing to find fuel for their customers.

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President Bush spoke to the nation today about the oil supply. He said he will suspend some environmental rules and may tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help cover shortages.

As the president's home state of Texas was hit by Hurricane Rita this weekend, gasoline has been in short supply. An estimated three million people evacuated from the metropolitan Houston region before the hurricane struck, but stalled cars without gas nearly brought the evacuation to a standstill. And now, as people are returning to the region, there are still shortages. NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

Houston is trying its best to start its engine with nothing but fumes in the tank. No one knows exactly how many stations in the city have gas, but an informal survey by this reporter of 40 stations along major freeways entering the city indicates that only about 10 percent of them have anything to sell. Most stations still have plastic bags wrapped around their nozzles, now the universal symbol for empty in this city. There are thousands of stations in the Houston area, and nearly all of them ran dry during the massive exodus of last week. But ironically, there's no shortage of gasoline in the Houston area.

(Soundbite of of truck)

McCHESNEY: This is the ChevronTexaco Galena Park terminal on the eastern side of Houston. Eighteen-wheeler tank trucks fill the five loading bays here, and there's a long line of trucks behind them.

Mr. MICKEY DRIVER (ChevronTexaco Spokesman): We have plenty of gasoline. We're just trying to get it to all the stations.

McCHESNEY: Mickey Driver is a spokesman for ChevronTexaco, which has 480 stations in the Houston area. He says a few statistics and logistical facts make it clear just how complex and vulnerable the gasoline supply line is. Start with this: It takes three tanker truckloads to fill the tanks of just one station. With nearly 500 Chevron and Texaco stations sitting on empty, nearly 1,500 truck runs will be necessary to fill them up.

Mr. DRIVER: These runs take anywhere from several hours to five or six hours, and right now in Houston with the traffic the way it is, it could take even longer.

McCHESNEY: Driver says the Chevron terminal is pushing out over a hundred truckloads a day, so it could be many days before the job is finished. At one point, Driver took a call on his cell phone.

(Soundbite of phone call)

Mr. DRIVER: You know, we'll figure it out. We'll find a way, so if you can get the tanker trucks here, we can get them loaded. OK. You're very welcome.

McCHESNEY: Driver said the call was from the state emergency center in Austin. The woman on the other end of the line said they're sending trucks to the Chevron terminal to pick up gas for Lufkin, Texas, a hundred miles to the north on I-45, the main route into Houston from Dallas.

Mr. DRIVER: At some of these stations, she said there were hundreds of cars in line hoping to get some gas, but none of them had any gas. And we'll do whatever it takes to get those tank trucks loaded.

McCHESNEY: Governor Perry's call for extra gas trucks from around the state to help out seems to be having some impact. Mike Schuer(ph) is a driver from Corpus Christi who has brought three other trucks with him to Houston. More are on the way, he says as he pulls out of the terminal.

Mr. MIKE SCHUER (Truck Driver): We're bringing them in from Brownsville, San Antonio, El Paso, Oklahoma.

(Soundbite of truck)

McCHESNEY: But Houston station owners say there's still a shortage of truck drivers, many of whom left the city during the evacuation, and not everything is working logically in the distribution loop. There are stations in sparsely populated neighborhoods with gas, while scores along the highways remain closed.

At one Shell station near Houston's huge medical center, there were no cars in the driveway. Hassan Abu Lateef(ph) is the owner.

Mr. HASSAN ABU LATEEF (Gas Station Owner): We have been out of gas since Wednesday afternoon. We called the company many times and no answer from them. We should get our gas because we are in the heart of of the medical center, and the medical center is very important, you know. Ambulance and police come through this area and they--we don't have no gas to supply.

McCHESNEY: Today, many more Houstonians are expected to return home, and many of them will follow those rolling tankers into a gas station. That's one of the few ways you know where you can fill up.

John McChesney, NPR News, Houston.

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