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Hurricane Katrina

Filling up will cost more

Storm-related disruptions are blamed for jumps in the price at the pumps and little relief is forecast.

By HELEN HUNTLEY
Published September 1, 2005



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Tampa Bay gas prices moved closer to $3 a gallon Wednesday as Gov. Jeb Bush warned that shortages affecting the Panhandle are likely to spread throughout the state.

The disruption of fuel production caused by Hurricane Katrina is expected to create problems for weeks, state officials said. Many refineries and pipelines are still shut down while companies assess the damage caused when the storm crossed the Gulf of Mexico last weekend.

Prices for regular unleaded gasoline surged above $3 a gallon in many parts of the country Wednesday, and a few gas stations in Georgia were charging as much as $6 after other retailers ran out of gas.

In the Tampa Bay area, some stations were on the verge of $3 per gallon. Increases of 10 to 30 cents a gallon were common Wednesday. Although spot checks found some stations still selling regular unleaded gas for less than $2.70 a gallon, many stations crossed the $2.80 threshold as the day wore on. A Citgo station on State Road 54 in Pasco County was selling regular unleaded for $2.99.

"It's going to cost me $50 to fill up," lamented Angela Jones of Wesley Chapel, who pulled into the station before she noticed the $2.99 sign. She filled up anyway.

Gov. Bush, who was in St. Petersburg visiting John M. Sexton Elementary School on Wednesday, said gasoline shortages already are a significant problem in the Panhandle, where demand has soared as emergency crews head to Mississippi and Louisiana.

"About 30 percent of all the gas stations were out of gasoline," he said. "My guess is that it will expand because we have not been able to get gasoline into the Port of Pensacola."

Bush warned that "Tampa Bay, Miami and Orlando and other major urban areas are going to see shortages of gasoline. ... Even though we weren't hit by a hurricane, we're going to have this impact. I can't tell you how long it will be before the refineries get back online, but I do think that we can mitigate this problem by conserving energy."

Bush said the federal government's decision to release crude oil from petroleum reserves will help in the "medium term," but won't do anything to alleviate the immediate problem since "crude oil needs to be refined and half our refining capacity of gasoline that comes to Florida is shut down right now."

Oil industry officials weren't offering any estimates of how long it will take to get the refineries back online.

"A great deal of our employees and personnel live in the affected areas, so just locating them and getting them back to work is a big effort," said Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council. The American Petroleum Institute issued a statement saying the effect of the storm will be "significant and protracted."

The U.S. Minerals and Management Service said 95 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's oil output was out of service and eight refineries were shut down as a result of the hurricane. Lack of power is a major problem in addition to storm damage.

Gas prices have surged throughout the country over the last two days, jumping as much as 50 cents a gallon overnight in Ohio.

"The industry is forcing prices up high enough that shortages won't occur because we'll change our behavior," Brad Proctor, founder of the price tracking service Gaspricewatch, told Bloomberg News.

Some drivers say they've been convinced.

Tampa schoolteacher Brooke Benton, 24, has been car pooling to work and now walks to the store, she said as she paid $2.75 a gallon to fill up her Honda. She said she even has cut out road trips to visit one of her best friends in Melbourne.

"I think the president needs to do something about this," she said.

State Attorney General Charlie Crist said Wednesday that his office is looking into reports of price gouging at gas stations around the state. State Solicitor General Christopher Kise said investigating the complaints is complicated.

"If one place is charging $2.69 (a gallon) and another is charging $3.69, it's obvious," Kise said. "But it's rarely that obvious."

AAA, which tracks gas prices daily, found its price report outdated almost as soon as it was posted Wednesday morning. The average price for a gallon of unleaded was $2.58 in the Tampa Bay area and $2.63 statewide - but that was based on Tuesday's prices.

"We'll see those averages increase," spokesman Randy Bly said.

He said many AAA members are calling, concerned about gas availability for trips over the Labor Day weekend.

"We tell them they shouldn't thwart their plans for vacation, but once the fuel gauge gets to the half-way point, they should start looking for a gas station," he said. Bly said AAA also is advising travelers to detour around the hurricane stricken areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.

Times staff writers Donna Winchester, Louis Hau, Saundra Amrhein and Lance Rothstein contributed to this report, which also used information from the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. Helen Huntley can be reached at huntley@sptimes.com or 727 893-8230.

[Last modified September 1, 2005, 00:58:13]


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