More than a third of fuel stations in Chattanooga had no gasoline on Wednesday due to the Colonial Pipeline problem - five times as many as the day before, a company that tracks such data said.
"We really saw a big old spike," said Allison Mac, a petroleum analyst for GasBuddy. "Definitely there was a panic-buying situation that took place."
Mac said 35% of stations in Chattanooga were without fuel on Wednesday, up from just 6.5% on Tuesday and none on Monday.
The number of stations in Tennessee without fuel was 18%, Mac said, and the figure was about 42% in Georgia.
However, the outlook at the pump may be improving.
Colonial Pipeline said late Wednesday afternoon that it has initiated the restart of pipeline operations. But the company said it will take several days for the product delivery supply chain to return to normal.
"Some markets served by Colonial Pipeline may experience, or continue to experience, intermittent service interruptions during the start-up period," a statement said.
In the Chattanooga area, motorists on Wednesday often crowded into stations that did offer fuel. If all the pumps were taken, drivers likely would wait their turn.
Prices at the pump, too, were rising.
AAA reported the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded in Chattanooga rose to $2.71 on Wednesday, up from $2.67 the day before and $2.63 a week ago.
In Dalton, Georgia, the jump was sharper - $2.93 on Wednesday compared to $2.82 on Tuesday and $2.64 a week ago, according to AAA.
John Kingston, editor at large for Chattanooga-based data and analytics company FreightWaves, said the Colonial pipeline that runs down the East Coast into the South also has a spur line that goes from Atlanta through the Chattanooga area and north into Nashville. If Colonial has an inventory of fuel it could send into that line, that could help, he said.
But, he added, the gas shortage is "really bad" in Atlanta, and he's not sure if the company is moving product out of that area.
Amy Brown Conway of Colonial Pipeline said in an email that the company system does run through the Chattanooga area, but she didn't address the spur's status.
A hack of the nation's largest fuel pipeline has led to panic buying that contributed to more than 1,000 gas stations running out of fuel, according to The Associated Press.
Colonial took the pipeline offline about six days ago as a precautionary measure after a cyber attack, but it does have smaller lateral lines open and it was running gas through the pipeline on a manual basis, said Megan Cooper, spokesperson for AAA Auto Club Group in Tennessee.
"We do know there is a small amount of fuel that has been running, granted it's not near what is normally flowing through that pipeline," she said.
The biggest supply problem in recent days is that gas consumption has doubled to tripled above normal rates in the Southeast, Cooper said.
"Normally, it would have taken a lot longer for those stations to run out of gasoline, but the fact that people are potentially panic buying and maybe hoarding is only really making that issue worse," she said. "If you need gasoline, by all means fill up, but don't take more than you need, and don't try to fill up one or more containers of gasoline."
Brent Hicks of Ringgold, Georgia, said Wednesday at the Murphy fuel station on Signal Mountain Road that he had passed a number of locations on his way to work that didn't have gas and decided to stop at one that did.
"I topped out," he said. "I had a half tank. I wanted to make sure I've got fuel."
Brenda Hill, who lives on Signal Mountain, said she was filling her tank because she's making a trip to Atlanta. She said she's concerned about people buying up and hoarding gas, noting it sounded a lot like what happened to toilet paper a year ago when the pandemic hit.
Mac said that if Colonial is able to restart the pipeline, relief should be seen quickly.
The city of Chattanooga has access to its own supply of fuel, and public vehicles were topped off Tuesday, spokesperson Ellis Smith said.
"We have enough gas to continue essential services for the foreseeable future, and we have access on an ongoing basis," Smith said.
Officials with Chattanooga-based trucking companies U.S. Xpress and Covenant Transport said the fuel crunch has had little effect so far on operations.
"Along with our suppliers we are very focused on the Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia markets, and feel diesel shortages could begin later this week," said Covenant spokesperson Doug Smith. "We are working hard with our fleets to make sure if they are headed into those areas, that they are topped off as best as possible."
Large fuel suppliers publicly disclose the availability of fuel on their websites, said U.S. Xpress spokesperson Brad Carmony.
"What it shows is that out of a combined well-over-1,200 nationwide stops, very few are experiencing diesel issues currently," he said.
Meanwhile, state and federal officials were scrambling to find alternate routes to deliver gasoline in the Southeast.
The White House said Wednesday that the Department of Transportation is now allowing Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia to use interstate highways to transport overweight loads of gasoline and other fuels under existing disaster declarations.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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