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Gas pains felt all over Clayton County

By Ed Brock and Michael Davis

In the wake of the killing hurricane, gas prices went crazy in Clayton County on Wednesday, and Gov. Sonny Perdue pledged to prosecute anyone for gouging.

Prices were jumping by half dollar increments at a time at some stations as the day went on, and some reported signs at $6.01 a gallon.

Some stations even took their signs down, opting to raise prices faster than they could change their prices.

At one Exxon Station on Mt. Zion Boulevard in Morrow, the sign read $4.99 a gallon.

"I think it is price gouging. I don't have any doubt about it," said Herman Murphy of Marietta as he filled up a state vehicle.

Another motorist, George Fields of Morrow, said, "It doesn't make any sense, $5 gas." He said he knew there was cheaper gas but long lines at those stations.

Station manager Ala Kahmanni said Wednesday afternoon, "The owner called me and said to make the price $4.99." He said the owner said he called the supplier and said they were out of gas.

Perdue said the state knows what stations paid for gas and when evidence is shown of gouging markups then prosecutions will take place.

Prices were jumping by half dollar increments at a time at some stations as the day went on. One in Stockbridge posted prices at at $5.87 and at another one in neighboring Clayton County gas prices were reported as high as $6.01 a gallon.

John Harper, an east Cobb County resident, pulled up to a gas station in Stockbridge Wednesday evening when he saw an enticing empty parking lot. He promptly turned around once the manager told him the gas prices - $5.87 for a gallon of unleaded fuel.

"It's highway robbery," Harper said.

He was one of a half-dozen people who left after pulling up to the station. Soon after, the gas station manager decided to lower the gas prices by $2 a gallon.

Tangela Gaines found herself several cars back in the extremely long lines at the gas pumps for the Sam's Club in Morrow on Wednesday.

"This is crazy," Gaines said, throwing up her hands. "Right now I'm just in shock. I've never seen this in my life."

It was a crazy day indeed for gasoline consumers around the state as news got out that Hurricane Katrina had shut down the pipelines that feed the cars of thousands in the Southeast. Prices began rocketing upwards and rumors spread like a plague of fear.

"I saw one station on Noah's Ark Road, it was $2.69 this morning when I was going to work and it was $2.89 this afternoon," said Sarah Hawkins of Henry County.

Hawkins was another one of perhaps hundreds of customers who flooded the Sam's Club on Jonesboro Road near Battle Creek Road where regular gas remained at $2.69 around 3 p.m. All six or seven pumps had lines of 10 to 15 cars each and an attendant said it had been like that all day. A Clayton County police officer was there helping to keep the peace.

Renee Mann of College Park said she had waited 45 to 55 minutes for her chance at the pumps where she filled her SUV's tank with premium gas.

"At $2.89, this is my bargain," Mann said.

Some gas stations in the Atlanta area had exceeded $3 a gallon by Wednesday afternoon and there was talk that prices would hit $4 by Thursday. In June last year drivers complained about feeling the pinch from prices around $1.79 per gallon for regular.

Although President Bush agreed to open up the nation's emergency oil reserves to relieve the crisis, Ric Cobb, spokesman for the Georgia Petroleum Council, said the problem was the lack of electricity in Louisiana and Mississippi from which the gasoline flows.

"Without electricity you can't get it out of there," Cobb said.

According to Cobb and Gov. Perdue, the good news is one of the largest suppliers of gas, Colonial Pipeline, expects to be operational again by this weekend.

"Right now it looks like we've looks like we're living off whatever inventories we have in the Atlanta area," Cobb said.

That means larger, high-volume gas station chains with contracts with the providers will get their gas first while smaller stations without contracts may not be resupplied, Cobb said.

At the Pacecar Express gas station on Main Street in Jonesboro, where a gallon of regular was $2.99 a gallon, employee Altaf Shiamsuedim said they were getting low.

"Maybe tomorrow we'll place an order," Shiamsuedim said. "With that price we can't sell."

The closing of some smaller stations seemed to fuel rumors that all gas stations around the state would close at 4 p.m. Shane Hix, a spokesman for the Governor's Office, said that was completely untrue.

Still, several customers at Ali Jooma's Shell gas station at Jonesboro Road and Ga. Highway 138 insisted that was the case.

"No sir, we're not closing," Jooma insisted when asked.

The situation reached a point where Clayton County police officers were ordered to concentrate their patrols at gas stations, Clayton County Assistant Police Chief Jeff Turner said.

"It's starting to become a road hazard. People are parking on the roadway to wait for the pumps," Turner said. "It's getting out of control."

Perdue took several steps to keep gas prices reasonable. He waived state requirements for higher additive, cleaner gasoline to be sold in the Atlanta area until Sept. 15. That regulation has been in place for some time in an effort by the city to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards

"While the state's requirement for cleaner burning gasoline is an important part of the plan to improve air quality in metropolitan Atlanta, this emergency has occurred late in the smog season and easing our requirements will help ensure an adequate supply of gasoline for Georgians," said Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Carol Couch.

Perdue also called on the federal Department of Transportation to lift truck driving restrictions, thereby allowing deliveries 24 hours a day. Today DOT approved the request, allowing fuel to be more easily distributed throughout the state.

And Perdue asked drivers not to "top off" their gas tanks, and avoid purchasing gasoline until their gasoline tanks are low. He encouraged Georgia business owners to conserve gasoline by taking advantage of telework and flexible work schedule options for employees.

Other agencies in Georgia were planning to send help to New Orleans and other areas on the Gulf Coast affected by the massive, deadly storm, easily the costliest in damage and possibly in lives.

At least 15 members of the Georgia Army National Guard, three Guard helicopters and more than 240 electrical workers from the state were headed Wednesday to hurricane-ravaged areas to assist with relief efforts.

Three CH-47 Chinook helicopters, each with a five-man crew, left Wednesday from their home at the Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. Two of Guard helicopter crews were headed to Baton Rouge, La.; the third was going to Meridian, Miss.

The helicopters will carry water, food and ice, and possibly help move groups of people from one area to another, said Lt. Col. Vernon Atkinson, facility commander for Detachment 1, Company F of the 131st Aviation Regiment at Hunter Airfield.

"We normally have a crew of four, but we're sending an extra flight engineer to help off-load cargo," he said.

He said the mission won't involve plucking stranded people off of roofs, but the helicopters could help move concrete, rocks or sand bags that can be used to help buttress up the levees around New Orleans.

"We can move 15,000 to 20,000 pounds on a hook. We can move that stuff around," Atkinson said.

The Guard members headed to Mississippi and Louisiana returned in February from Afghanistan where they conducted combat assaults and humanitarian missions.

Georgia Guard officials weren't immediately sure if other units from the state would be called up to help with relief and rescue efforts along the Gulf Coast.

The state has opened seven shelters in Atlanta, Newton County, Dougherty County, Muscogee County, Coweta County and Troup County to house the evacuated victims. Two additional shelters in Lowndes County and Richmond county may also open, state officials said.

Meanwhile, Georgia's power companies were sending crews to help restore power. By week's end, about 1,900 Georgia Power crew members will be helping to restore electricity in Alabama and Mississippi. The state's electric membership corporations were sending about 240 employees from around Georgia to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"We're getting reports from cooperatives in those areas who are telling us that as much as 100 percent of their customers are without power," said Jim Wright with the Georgia Electric Membership Corp.

Gaines said her mother and sister live in New Orleans but safely evacuated to Texas.

"They lost everything," she said. "It makes me feel a little guilty, standing here talking about paying $2.69 for gas."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.