Hours earlier, the real-world results of several days of psychological snowballing were being felt at an Exxon gas station at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and Rhodes Street in Arlington, where only diesel fuel was available.
Dozens of cars circled the Tiger Mart, confirming there was no fuel before searching elsewhere. One man pulled up to the diesel pump, inserted his credit card and tried to fuel his non-diesel vehicle before realizing his mistake.
Farther west near Interstate 81, several large gas stations and a slew of smaller ones had covers over pumps and signs reading “No gas,” said Berryville resident Bill Igoe. “If I found an open station I was going to top off,” he said. “No luck there.”
Virginia officials said the bottlenecks caused by the shuttered pipeline were being exacerbated by people’s behavior.
“It appears that shortages are due largely to panic-buying,” said Lauren Opett, chief spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
Opett said she could not confirm data from GasBuddy that showed large numbers of stations with no gas available. The company said Wednesday evening that 52 percent of stations in Virginia had no gas — a number that stood at 15 percent in both Maryland and the District.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), whose office has tax and oversight responsibility affecting fuel distribution, said he doubted the figures.
“I haven’t seen anything approaching that,” Franchot said. “I don’t have a lot of faith in those figures. I think there’s a little bit of herd mentality going on here.”
Even before the company’s restart announcement, Franchot said the problem would be resolved “sooner rather than later.” He said the Port of Baltimore was letting in gas supplies, as Maryland officials also took advantage of loosened rules allowing fuels with higher emissions to be used in certain areas on a temporary basis.
The key thing is that “individuals in Maryland do not overreact and race to fill every internal-combustion-powered vehicle to the maximum amount of gas. Just do not do that for the next couple days, and we’ll be fine.”
That message was not always followed.
Some gas station owners were getting increasingly nervous, worried about the lack of fresh supplies, said Kirk McCauley, whose organization represents gas stations in Maryland, the District and Delaware. No gas also means no customers buying sodas and snacks.
On Wednesday, Sajawal Butt, assistant manager of a Sunoco gas station at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, had no gas to sell. He said a truck was due later in the day.
“It goes very fast now,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Kelly Goldsmith, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University who has studied scarcity and uncertainty, said people tend to act defensively, even in a situation of “fake scarcity.”
“When you threaten our access to something, we want it more,” Goldsmith said. “For most consumers, erring on the side of caution is just the way to go.”
Of course, some people Wednesday just really needed to fill their tank.
Glenda Massenburg stopped Wednesday afternoon at the BP station near Georgia Avenue and Piney Branch Parkway in Northwest D.C. to fill up. There wasn’t much of a line, but some pumps were dry.
Massenburg said she wasn’t panic-buying. She just needed gas — and a tank would last her two weeks. She said the lack of fuel reminded her of the energy crisis of 1973, but the similarities ended there.
“That was legit,” she said. “I think this is hype.”
The increased demand was clear at the station’s green digital price board: Regular was $3.19 per gallon, up from $2.79 a day ago, she said.
Less than two miles away at 14th Street and Allison Street NW, an Exxon station was out of fuel, at least temporarily. Emerson Torres lives in the neighborhood and works in home construction, and was trying to fill up his white van so he could go to work. He had been able to fill up his personal car that morning but was left stranded with just an eighth of a tank in his work van.
Torres wasn’t even sure why he couldn’t buy gas. Whether this was an emergency, or a panic, or a panic about a panic, he wasn’t going anywhere.
McCauley said there were serious complications from the attack. He said some stations were running out of fuel as demand surged. At the same time, a pandemic-related shortage of tanker-truck drivers made it more difficult to get the tanks refilled.
As of Wednesday morning, McCauley said, tank farms in Baltimore, Springfield and Fairfax had enough fuel supplied by Colonial, but there weren’t enough drivers to get it from the storage facilities to gas stations. Many truck drivers who were laid off when people drove less earlier in the pandemic have found other jobs, he said, and it takes time for new workers to obtain the special licenses needed to transport hazardous materials.
John Townsend, spokesman for AAA-Mid Atlantic, said the average national price of a gallon of gas hit $3 per gallon Wednesday, up 7 cents from last Wednesday. Prices were up 11 cents a gallon statewide in Maryland, 13 cents in Virginia and 3 cents in the District — the result of heightened demand, he said.
He said AAA is asking motorists to avoid filling up their tanks out of fear in the same way residents were asked not to hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the start of the pandemic.
“We’re telling people to not panic and avoid topping off their tanks so they don’t make a bad situation worse,” Townsend said. “But the more you tell people to avoid panic-buying, the more it stirs up fear. I think that’s what we’re dealing with.”
Melissa Marrs, who lives about 20 minutes outside Charlottesville in Fluvanna County, Va., set up two of her sons for virtual classes Wednesday. One car was sitting in the driveway with half a tank after Marrs couldn’t find enough gas to fill it.
Her family is going to need some gasoline soon, she said. Her husband is a nurse — an essential worker who drives to a health-care facility treating coronavirus patients. “They’re not thinking about their neighbors, but they should be,” she said.
At nearby Fluvanna Market, the tanks were bone dry. An employee of a Charlottesville BP answered the phone Wednesday morning with the greeting: “Hello — no we don’t have gas.”