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Returnees hurry up and wait - for gas
San Francisco Chronicle


September 29, 2005

ORANGE, Texas - As people return home to this storm-battered corner of Texas, hot and tired and ready to rebuild, they're finding very little waiting for them.

There is no electricity. There is no food to buy. There is no potable water flowing. But most of all, there is no gasoline.

So after word got out that a truck stop off Exit 873 on Interstate 10 had gasoline and the electricity needed to pump it, they came by the hundreds to wait in a line 3 miles long just to fill up.

"As far as we know, this is the only gas in all of Orange County," said Dennis Storch, a state trooper among the dozen or so officers keeping tempers cool and cars moving at the station, called Pilot Travel Center.

The station opened Sunday, just as soon as employees cleared the debris and fired up a huge diesel generator to power the place. It wasn't long before the cars filed in.

They've been coming ever since, more than 5,000 cars, pickups and big 18-wheelers a day, to fill their tanks and gas cans. Station employees said they're going through 20,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel daily from tanks refilled nightly.

They keep coming, even after the station shuts down at 7 each night, to wait in the muggy heat, sitting on lawn chairs and sleeping in cars to pay $2.51 a gallon for fuel that they say they'd pay twice that much for.

"When I went home to bed at midnight, they were still pulling up," one harried station employee, who declined to give his name, said Tuesday. "When I opened up at 8 o'clock, the whole parking lot was full. There must have been 1,000 cars."

The line snaked around the service station, its signs blown away by wind that left only the steel poles behind, down one side of the road, and back along the other.

Cathey Fleming rolled into the parking lot around 4 a.m., the fuel gauge of her red Chevrolet pickup just above empty, and waited several hours to fill up.

"Six hours and 15 minutes, if you want to be exact," she said, climbing into the cab, credit card receipt in hand. "Woo! It's a relief, I'll tell you."

It was slow going to be sure, with vehicles inching along just a few car lengths in an hour's time. But people were in good spirits, passing the time with DVDs and books, or sharing hurricane stories about roofs blown away or trees knocked over.

Sitting in line all day is boring, some said, but not as boring as sitting at home all day.

"There's no one at the house, so I might as well come down here and visit," said Steve Cormier, who is 38 and lives in nearby Orangefield.

State troopers directed cars, handed out bottles of water and watched out for line-jumpers. Miscreants are dealt with quickly and sternly by the police if those in line don't get to them first, and they usually slink away like scolded dogs, customers and those keeping order said.

"We've had to talk mean to some folks, but we haven't made any arrests," said Storch, the trooper keeping an eye on the line.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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