Sandy Cripples The East Coast

11.02.12

New York Fuel Runs on Empty in Hurricane Sandy Aftermath

Power outages and flooded roads have led to an unprecedented run on fuel. From taxis at twice the price to fist fights in line, a look at a desperate city’s scramble to gas up.

At 7:30 Thursday morning, the line at the Hess gas station on the corner of McGuiness and Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn was starting to get out of control. By two in the afternoon, the customers were queued up down the block.

“People were getting in fights,” Officer Steve Truglio told The Daily Beast, as about 15 of his fellow officers directed traffic and turned away those attempting to cut the line. Asked why the pumps were operating so slowly, Truglio said the gas was running out.

This particular station was one of the last in Brooklyn, and in the city as a whole, to run out of gasoline—just another one of Hurricane Sandy’s serious side effects. “In New York City, over 50 percent of service stations are not able to sell gasoline, and it could be up to 75 percent,” Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops, told NBC News Thursday.

By 9 o'clock Wednesday night, the Sunoco on the corner of Grand Avenue and Atlantic near Prospect Heights was already dry. The next morning cashier Alan Marwan said he was told not to expect a refill until at least Saturday.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Marwan, who’s worked at the station for two years. “People came from all over on Wednesday to get gas before it ran out. I don’t know how they knew.”

Word had quickly spread about the shortage and by Wednesday afternoon, Marwan said cars were pouring out of the parking lot, one line going down Grand Avenue, the other going down Atlantic. “People were cutting in line, yelling at each other, running up to me with money while their cars were still in the street,” he said, predicting the madness will start back up again as soon as he gets more gas. And when that happens, Marwan expects the police to be on hand to help.

Marwan made sure to fill up his own car before the station’s well ran dry. “I have a Honda Civic,” he said proudly. “It will last for 10 days.”

Marlon Allen wasn’t so lucky. The Queens native had driven to Brooklyn for work Thursday hoping he’d have better luck finding fuel in another borough.

“Really?” He asked Marwan. “There’s no gas in Brooklyn at all?”

“F--k,” he mumbled in disappointment. “I’m driving on empty. I’m gonna be screwed. I’m going to go to work and hope the train is running to get home. I don’t have a clue if the train is even running.”

A lack of power is keeping much of the gasoline stored along the New Jersey Turnpike from being distributed to stations.
Gas Lines at the Hess Station on McGuinness Blvd at Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn
A crowded Hess station on McGuinness Blvd. at Greenpoint Ave. in Brooklyn. (Brian Ries)

With most of the subway system still down for the count, cabs are in even higher demand than usual. But without anywhere to fill up, New York residents have been warned that taxis may be in short supply and to expect to be asked to share trips with additional passengers for a negotiated fee if they’re even lucky enough to snag one of those coveted canary cars. Some car services are taking advantage of the shortage by charging 2.5 times their regular rate for rides.

A few blocks down Atlantic Avenue from Alan Marwan’s Sunoco, two men with Southern accents filled up a South Carolina-plated ambulance with diesel—the only fuel in stock. They coyly revealed that they worked for a private company—called Regional Ambulance—and were called by FEMA to come up ahead of the storm on Sunday. One of the men said they’d been stationed at an air base but couldn’t give the name. They’d driven to Brooklyn from Manhattan seeking sustenance for their vehicle.

Inside, station manager Anan Janajra fielded phone calls from neighbors inquiring about gas—something he’d been doing all day.

Janajra said he typically sells about 2,500 gallons of gas in 24 hours. Wednesday he sold 7,000 gallons within five hours. In his seven years at this particular Shell station and two years at a Sunoco before that, Janajra said he’d never seen anything like this.

“People were fighting with each other yesterday to get the gas. We had three guys working plus four police officers,” he said.

Gas Lines at the Hess Station on McGuinness Blvd at Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn
People push their cars along McGuinness Blvd. towards a near-by gas station. (Brian Ries)

Janjara noted that his company’s other stations in places like Staten Island are suffering from a different problem: they have gas but no power. The blackout across New York City and New Jersey is partially to blame for the gas shortage. The executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, Convenience, Automotive Association explained that a lack of power is keeping much of the gasoline stored along the New Jersey Turnpike from being distributed to stations. “They can’t get that gasoline into the delivery trucks without power,” he told CNBC.

For now, other than the occasional uniformed driver, the gas stations are filled with trucks and SUVs, as diesel is the only form of fuel available—and that won’t last long either. Janajra said he had about 850 gallons of diesel left and, at the rate trucks were coming in, didn’t expect that to last for more than two or three hours.

“I hope everything goes back to normal soon,” Janajra said, worrying about how the outage will affect his business. “Hopefully by Monday it will all be OK.”