Colonial Pipeline restarted operations Wednesday night after a ransomware hack forced it offline last week. But it could be days before supply to gas stations in Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas are back to normal. And the restoration meant little to Muse as she spent the afternoon trying to fill her car.
When her Hyundai died, Muse started walking, gas can in hand, until she found a Shell station with fuel and a line of thirsty cars that stretched two blocks long.
“I’m just frustrated. You go to 10 gas stations, you figure you’re going to get some gas,” Muse said. “It’s crazy.”
Similar scenes of chaos and desperation popped up at filling stations throughout the Southeast as drivers searched for fuel. Binge-buying also drove gas prices higher, with the national average hitting $3.02 a gallon Thursday, its highest level since 2014, according to AAA.
It was enough to remind people of a certain age of twin oil crises in the 1970s. Lines for gas formed, and service stations rationed supplies, sometimes using a system in which they fueled cars on alternate days depending on whether license plates ended in odd or even numbers.
Unlike the long OPEC oil embargo, however, this gasoline shortage was mostly man-made. Drivers swarmed gas stations, even in locations that would not have been affected by the hack of the pipeline operator. The impact was immediate.
Customers drained more than 17,000 stations across the Southeast. GasBuddy, an app that tracks gasoline prices and availability, said as of Thursday at 10 a.m., nearly 70 percent of North Carolina’s service stations lacked fuel. In the Washington region, there were widespread shortages among service stations in Virginia (54 percent), Maryland (34 percent) and D.C. (51 percent).
“I hope you’re all glad you voted for Biden!” someone shouted from a passing car to others waiting outside a gas station to refuel. Economists and industry experts said the shortages at the gas pump were driven by mass psychology more than actual scarcity of supplies. When a resource becomes scarce, or is perceived to be, people tend to focus above all else on getting more of it.
On Wednesday evening, vehicles lined up or wheeled into darkened gas stations only to find yellow tape tied tight around the handles of empty pumps.
Some drivers needed gas because their fuel tanks were truly empty or nearly so — including the driver of a Ford Explorer who had to push his vehicle the last half block into a Shell station. Others, fearful that the pipeline might not come back online soon and the shortages would spread, hoped to top off the tank for extra security.
“I got gas enough for another 50, 60 miles according to my computer,” said Peter Devlin, 66, a carpenter from Boston working a temporary job in Arlington, Va. Devlin said he wasn’t sweating the shortage too much because he’s staying near the job site and that allows him to walk to work.
“I’m not worried about it, because they’re telling us that by the end of the week, everything should be back online. So I’m hoping that it’s just a temporary thing,” he said.
But Devlin, who stopped to take a picture of a large “No Gas” sign propped up outside an Exxon station, also hoped to fill his tank if possible — to be on the safe side. It was, he admitted, a calmer, perhaps even pragmatic, form of panic-buying.
“Everybody panics,” Devlin said. “Look at what happened when the virus started. Everyone went out and bought toilet paper. I think, in general, Americans just panic.”
Minutes later, Kruti Mehta rolled into the same Exxon station, having searched for gas without success at several service stations on Route 1 and near Reagan National Airport.
“Everyone’s telling me that there’s nothing available and they don’t even know when they’ll get the next buy in,” said Mehta, 49, of Alexandria, Va.
Mehta, who works for a law firm, hadn’t been aware of the shortages until that afternoon. Her onboard computer said she had 228 miles left in the tank, but she said she worried she wouldn’t be able to get to her 85-year-old father in Ashburn, Va., if the shortages persist.
“I wasn’t edgy at all until now. Now I’m edgy,” Mehta said. “My parents always talked about the ’70s and the Carter administration and the gas lines, and I don’t think that’s what we’re experiencing right now, but here we are.”
Dana Neese looked for gas to make certain she could leave town this weekend on her first vacation since the pandemic began. Neese, 71, had three-quarters of a tank but wanted to make sure her gleaming black Audi would get to the Carolinas without hitting “E.” It was, she said, deja vu from the 1970s oil crises.
“But I believe, because of where we’ve been in the past to where we are today, we’ve learned from that,” said Neese, who is a retired grief counselor and lives in Old Town Alexandria. “And I believe that we’re going to get out of this by this weekend … because of technology and education.”
Muse, however, had little choice but to find gas to get her Elantra moving again.
She walked more than a half-mile to the Shell station at Oronoco and North Henry streets, where she explained her plight to people at the head of the line. They let her cut in, and Muse bought $3 of fuel, which was about all her gas can could hold.
Then she headed back to her car, which ran out of gas at a Sunoco station located at the corner of Mount Vernon Avenue and East Braddock Road. Muse, who collects disability assistance because of a bad back and also has asthma, found the going difficult.
“How does the gas run out? It’s bad enough that it’s sky high,” she said. “In situations like this, there should be a limit on gas — no filling up, if someone else needs gas.”
When she arrived and tried to refill her car, the gas can’s fume-less spout wouldn’t pour. So she fished a Bojangles cup from a nearby garbage can and tried ladling in gas, little by little. That’s when the station’s owner, Jason Yates, appeared.
Yates, 60, who owns the Sunoco service station and a restaurant nearby, saw Muse struggling and in need of a funnel. But Yates, whose station manager had already closed up and left, didn’t have a key. So he found a watering can, used that to transfer the gas into Muse’s car and made sure it would start.
Muse, who by now was having trouble breathing, sat for a time in the passenger seat, wheezing and using an inhaler. “I feel disoriented,” she said. “I really do.”
So Yates went to his restaurant next door to get her some water. He returned with crab dip and bread, too. Then Muse, having caught her breath, started her car and headed home.