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New York gas rationing fuels tempers, long lines

November 09, 2012|By Tina Susman

NEW YORK--Leslie Martin was never so happy to be odd. If only she'd known how to pump her own gas on the first day of rationing in New York and suburban Long Island.

Still, Martin made do early Friday after waiting for hours in line as the state tries to manage the gasoline shortage resulting from station closures and fuel delivery problems in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Because Friday, Nov. 9, is an odd number, only people like Martin, driving cars with license plates ending in odd numbers or characters, were allowed at the pumps.

Estimates vary on the percentage of stations in New York City that are open and pumping regularly. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the rationing plan Thursday, he said only about one-quarter of the city's stations had gas available. Whatever the true number, it's not enough--as evidenced by the lines that quickly sprout and extend down avenues as soon as tankers show up with fuel supplies. The search for an open gas station has replaced the search for a parking space as the most infuriating task for city dwellers.

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Martin, who lives in Brooklyn, did not have to look far. A large station in her neighborhood was open early Friday. She got into her daughter's black Honda -- which she needed to return to her daughter in Washington over the weekend -- and waited, along with hundreds of other vehicles whose plates ended in 1,3,5,7 or 9. Police stood guard at one end of the station, but they couldn't cover all the entrances, leading some people, like Nellie Smith, to try to cut in front of others.

"I've been in this car for two hours!" Martin bellowed as Smith tried to nudge the nose of her red Ford Focus in front of car after car. Each vehicle successfully hugged the rear bumper of the car in front to prevent Smith from getting into the line. Martin did the same.

"I'm too old for this," she said half-jokingly after Smith conceded defeat and drove off. "And it's not even my car."

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At the pumps, signs directed customers to pay first -- cash only, $50 limit. Behind protective glass in a small booth, a lone woman managed the seemingly endless line of people pushing dollars toward her, impatient to fill up before the pumps ran dry.

Martin handed over a $50 bill, then pondered how to get the hose to reach over the car to the tank. She got back into the car and nudged it closer to the pump, then stood by as a stranger took over. Martin, who is about to turn 70, admitted she had no idea how to pump gas.  The car took $47 worth.

Martin had considered simply heading for Washington and filling up in New Jersey, where gas rationing has been underway for a few days and lines are shorter. But there were no guarantees she’d make it out of New York City and find an open pump before running out.

It's the kind of dilemma facing drivers across the city since Sandy disrupted fuel deliveries, and knocked out power that enables stations with fuel to pump it.

Mick Ahmed, who runs a car service in Brooklyn, said his 15 drivers never knew when or where they'd be able to fill up. If they spot an open station, they pull in and wait, often for several hours, said Ahmed. That, combined with the increase in people calling for cars because of disruptions in public transport, has made keeping his business afloat “near impossible.” 

"It's murder," said Ahmed as he fielded calls from people trying to reserve vehicles and from drivers checking in to give updates on open gas stations. At any given time, he said one-fourth of his drivers were stuck in gas lines. "It's a loss for everyone, but what are you gonna do?" he said with a shrug.

Outside a casket delivery business in Brooklyn's Gowanus district, an employee said the company managed by sending its vans over to New Jersey each night and filling the tanks.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," he said. "But this is unacceptable."

Back near the front of the line, Smith, the woman who had tried to cut in front of other drivers, insisted she was only doing what police guarding the entrance had directed her to do. "I've been waiting 10 minutes!" she exclaimed, apparently in hopes of winning some sympathy. Instead, she drew disbelieving stares from those who had waited hours.

When it became clear that nobody would let Smith cut the line and that she, too, would have to drive to the end of it and wait for hours, Smith opted to give up and try again Sunday, the next odd day.

"I guess I'll just wait it out," she said, driving away.


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