A gas can sits on the curb at a Hess Corp. gas station in New York. (Scott Eells / Bloomberg )
LAKEWOOD, N.J.--I almost ran out of gas in New Jersey today.
I was down to less than half a tank in my rented Jeep Liberty on Thursday night, which was cause for alarm, given the post-Sandy shortages.
I had been waiting until the wee hours of the morning to fill up, but even that has become difficult. Now when a station runs dry, people camp out, waiting for a new delivery, turning a closed station into a mirage.
VIDEOS: East Coast hit by deadly storm
I asked my aunt and uncle in North Jersey for advice. I've been staying with them since all the hotels are full. They were still without power Friday, and had been stocking up on gasoline for their cars and a generator.
Stop as soon as you see a short line, they said. Don't rule anything out. Listen to the radio and if someone recommends a station, get there quickly.
I headed for the Garden State Parkway at 10 a.m. while listening to 101.5 FM with an eye on the little red gas needle, which was slowly sinking along with my stomach. I had rented the SUV anticipating rough and flooded roads and the sturdy vehicle had helped--but it also gobbled gas.
INTERACTIVE: Before and after Hurricane Sandy
I passed a handful of towns where the local gas stations were shuttered. On the parkway, gas lines stretched for miles, with police stationed at the pumps. Some cars were stopped on the shoulder, drivers hauling gas cans to the nearest rest stop. Some rest stops were not even pumping, orange neon signs on the parkway warning: "No fuel."
A woman came on the radio, saying they had gasoline in Manchester Township and that the lines were, well, better than the parkway.
I headed that way.
As I exited onto Route 70 at Lakewood, I noticed a gas station on the opposite side of the road with a short line. Were people pumping gas? From a distance, I couldn't be sure. A concrete wall separated the two sides of the highway. I had to drive a few miles before I could turn around, watching the little red needle on my gas tank dip the whole time, worrying they might not be pumping or might run out before I got back.
I'd been waiting at a station in Little Falls the day before when they ran out of gas, and saw the disappointment of those just about to pump.
I was saying a prayer when I spotted a tow truck ahead of me, and an ambulance. Where did they get gas?
I arrived at the Exxon station at 11:01 a.m. The line was only a dozen cars long. Some had driven from New York and northern New Jersey. A few other drivers got out and reported that the station was indeed pumping--for now.
Another ambulance rushed by, this time with the lights on. At a Lukoil down the highway, I could see people camped out, waiting. A police officer was parked nearby.
As I pulled up to the Exxon pumps with less than a quarter tank, I saw they were taking credit cards and appeared to have power inside. Pretty rare. Regular was $3.59 a gallon, but they were only pumping super. Fine.
As an attendant filled the tank, I watched the little red needle rise, and my stomach settled.
Afterward, I talked to the station's owner, Jignesh Shah. He was stocking supplies inside -- he's been working four days straight, the pumps running dry every six to seven hours. Shah said he'd received a delivery of 8,800 gallons Friday morning, and expected it to be gone by 2 p.m.
Sure enough, when I stepped back outside, the line had grown. Jake Eulo, 62, was waiting in his red Jeep Cherokee. He'd lost a house in Silverton.
"Where my house is, you have to wait hours," he said. "It's terrible."
Ahead of him was Walt Must, 56, a lawyer from Toms River.
"This has been a madhouse since it started," he said of the gasoline situation.
Ahead of him, Rob Vargas, 32, a local DJ, was waiting in his red Montero Sport, sharing the good news with friends.
"We're all communicating through Facebook. I just put a mass text out to all my friends that they have gasoline," he said.
Vargas has weathered Category 5 hurricanes before in his native Nicaragua, and thought he was prepared. But the gas shortage and lasting power outages took him by surprise. Now he has 14 relatives without power staying at the two-bedroom apartment in Lakewood he shares with his 2-year-old daughter. Friday night, he had a gig at a club near Philadelphia, about 40 miles away.
"I'll be OK with the tank full, but it changes everything, your point of view, everything," he said of the gas shortage. "Once you change something from people's everyday life, they don't know what to do."
As I pulled out and headed for Seaside Heights, I passed more abandoned gas stations, more lines snaking away from pumps sure to run dry before everyone gassed up. I tried to stay hopeful. Seaside Heights was only about 13 miles away. I tried not to think about the 80 miles I'd have to drive back to West Caldwell on Friday night or to other towns in the days ahead.
But I had trouble keeping my eye off that little red needle.
Federal judge orders new studies on Honolulu rail project
As temps fall after Sandy, New Yorkers seek refuge in shelters
Post-Sandy misery: Power out, toilets clogged, temperatures falling