WANTAGH, N.Y. -- Ever since the power came on at the gas station early Wednesday, Billy O'Mahoney has been taking calls from neighbors, customers, cousins and distant relatives all asking the same question: "You got gas?"
The tanks went dry in four hours on Wednesday, two days after Hurricane Sandy swept through. The station's supply normally lasts two or three days.
"It's like gold right now," said O'Mahoney, the service manager at the Wantagh Car Care Center in Wantagh, N.Y., about nine miles inland from communities on the south shore of Long Island that were hammered by Sandy.
Even with the electricity coming on in more and more neighborhoods and towns in the interior of Long Island, the island is starting to run out of gas entirely.
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"My supplier says it will be two or three days until we get gas," said O'Mahoney. The tanks at the main petroleum terminals dotted across the island were allowed to go dry before the storm came in to prevent a possible environmental disaster. Now, the network of gas distributors on the island are waiting for barges to arrive from refineries to replenish the terminals.
New York is not alone. In New Jersey, long gas lines are the order of the day -- largely a result of breakdowns in the infrastructure that supplies the fuel.
About 80% of New Jersey’s 2,944 gas stations are “out of fuel or are out of power and some are unable to sell fuel,” said Tracy Noble, a spokeswoman for AAA Midatlantic and a New Jersey resident. “It’s one of the biggest challenges the state is facing right now.”
Without gas, trucks can't move crews in to clear the roads and repair the power lines and bring food to resupply grocery stores.
O'Mahoney said a customer found someone trying to siphon gas out of a Mercury Tracer wagon parked behind the station.
Dressed in a short-sleeved, blue-collared shirt with "Mobil" embroidered above the pocket, O'Mahoney picks up the station phone one more time.
"No, we don't have gas," he says to his cousin Rocco on the other line. "You don't call to talk? Just when you need gas!"
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Gas stations are taking steps to stretch their dwindling reserves, according to AAA's Noble. Some are capping purchases at $20 or $50 a customer. Some sell only to people with small gas cans who are buying fuel for generators. But the falling volumes of gasoline available and the long lines of cars have caused widespread disruption. Even AAA is struggling to get gas for its tow trucks, Noble said.
Demand for gasoline, even under normal conditions, outstrips local refining capacity. About half of New Jersey’s gasoline comes from three refineries in the state, and three near Philadelphia, said Roger Diwan, a partner at PFC Energy, a Washington, D.C. consultant.
New Jersey gets the rest of its gasoline from refineries on the Gulf Coast via the Colonial pipeline, which begins in Houston and ends in New York, and from imports from Europe that arrive at terminals on its coast.
Refineries, terminals, pipelines and gas stations -- which all need electrcity to run -- were hit particularly hard by the power outage caused by the storm. Three of the six refineries have resumed work at normal capacity, one at a reduced capacity, and two remain shut down, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Many gas stations still lack power as electricity gets restored to higher-priority places such as hospitals. The Colonial pipeline is also shut and it’s unclear when it will restart, the Energy Department said.
The terminals for gasoline imports are also shuttered. It remains unclear how much damage has been done to the terminals and the harbors by Sandy.
If there is a lot of floating debris, tankers might be unwilling to ply the waters, Diwan said.
Two major ports for gasoline that are closed are Arthur Kill, a waterway between New Jersey and Staten Island, and Bayonne, N.J., where power outages are widespread.
“The terminals' and harbor’s key infrastructure may have been badly affected and we don’t know how badly yet,” Diwan said.
While demand has plummeted because people are staying home and flights have been grounded, enough people are getting out, searching for gasoline, that long lines have sprung up at the few places where fuel is available and pumps working.
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Bennett reported from Wantagh, N.Y., and Banerjee from Washington.