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Gas shortages as Northeast snowstorm gives Sandy flashbacks

6:50 PM, Feb 8, 2013   |    comments
People wait in line to fill containers with gas at a Shell station on Thursday in Keyport, N.J. (Photo: Mel Evans, AP)
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(NBC NEWS) -- Batten down the hatches, it's time for a stormy re-run.

Not of wind and heavy precipitation and threats of flooding, but of long lines at gas stations. Motorists across metro New York City descended in droves on area gas stations Thursday night and into Friday as the snow started falling.

"I went out initially at 8 a.m. and it was pure craziness," said Kenneth R. Mall, a banker from Bayside, Queens. "I wasn't going to wait an hour."

Mall returned home and went back out to fill his tank around midnight, when he found that many pumps had already run dry. "I was kind of nervous because I was on empty... I just kept going until I found one," he said. Mall said he passed nine gas stations that were all out of fuel before finally finding one with gas - and no line - about a 15-minute drive from his house.

"There are a lot of gas stations on Long Island running out of gas," Alex Basini, a medical salesman from West Islip, said Friday morning. "People are a little panicked right now."

Some people took to Twitter to bemoan long lines and advise others about outages on Friday, while others made fun of the mad rush for gas, pointing out that while hurricanes might be rare, blizzards aren't uncommon in the Northeast.

"It's just an overreaction. ... People are being overly cautious," Island Park, Long Island car salesman Andy Boyes said via email. "If we do end up with massive power outages, gas may become an issue again, but I seriously doubt it."

Still, local residents have lingering memories of the chaotic days and weeks following Superstorm Sandy, when limited availability of gasoline prompted New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to impose rationing requiring motorists to buy gas on alternate days.

"Better safe than sorry," Old Bethpage resident Mark Breyer told NBC New York Thursday night, adding that he was without power for nearly two weeks as a result of Sandy.

The prospect of power outages increases demand, as homeowners with generators stock up on fuel to keep their electricity on. Mall said the customer next to him was filling up a portable container as well as his vehicle's tank.

Vivencio S. Valencia, a physical therapist from Bergenfield, N.J., also said he saw other customers filling up portable containers during his half-hour wait for gas on Thursday night.

"I still had [a] half tank full but I was just worried once Nemo strikes," he said via email. He said other stations he passed on his way home last night all had lines of 10 to 15 cars each.

These well-intended efforts to prepare can backfire, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. "When everybody hears about gas lines, you get a little bit of collateral buying" by futures traders responding to the sudden spike in demand at the pump, he said. And the empty station tanks frustrating motorists Friday are entirely due to pre-storm panic-buying.

Kloza told CNBC, "The threat of no electricity in pumping stations and no electricity in New England to keep fuel supply terminals open" is contributing slightly to a run-up in wholesale gas prices that began in mid-January and has added about 50 cents a gallon to the cost of fuel.

This storm, even if it clocks in on the severe side of forecasters' estimates, doesn't have the potential to do the kind of damage Sandy left behind. "Sandy knocked out almost every terminal in New York Harbor, in some cases for months, and knocked out some refineries for about a month," Kloza said.

Aside from gas, the usual stockpiling of staple grocery items and batteries that tends to kick in before a storm hits seemed to be amplified, as well. Twitter users posted about long lines and stocking up on food and beverages.

"I actually went to the grocery store this morning and bought cold cuts, milk, eggs, all the essentials," Basini said. He wasn't the only one with that idea - he said the two cashiers working at that early hour were overwhelmed.

By Martha C. White

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