Federal and state officials scrambled to quash a fast-spreading rumor Wednesday that Hurricane Rita would trigger a gasoline shortage in Mississippi, but not fast enough to prevent long lines and fears.
"Let me be perfectly clear: Neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency nor the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency are rationing or otherwise disrupting the availability of gasoline to the citizens of Mississippi nor do we have any intention to do so,'' Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who heads the federal recovery effort in the region, said during a Jackson news conference.
"Gas remains available,'' Allen said.
But residents weren't so sure. At lunchtime, more than two dozen vehicles were lined up at a Chevron station on U.S. 49 in Gulfport, waiting for fill-ups.
Nina Smith, 33, of Biloxi got a call from a friend who told her - wrongly - the pumps would be shut off at noon.
"I came just in case,'' she said. "I had to wait in line three hours before, and I've got to get to work.''
In Hattiesburg, 90 miles inland, radio talk shows were adding fuel to the rumors.
"I just heard gasoline by the weekend may be $10 a gallon if this hurricane hits gas refineries in Texas,'' said Jim Faulk, a contract roofer working for FEMA.
Faulk was filling up his tank and some portable gasoline containers at Dandy Dan's BP, where a sign on the door read: "Rumors circulating today after gas station takeovers by FEMA are not true.''
Deborah Bellew, 32, of Gulfport, heard the FEMA rumor from her mother-in-law in Hattiesburg.
"I just decided it's better to be safe than sorry,'' she said. "My husband said everyone in Hattiesburg was panicking. I don't know where it started or if it's true, but I'm here because we've been through this already.''
In the first two weeks after Hurricane Katrina leveled much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, fuel supplies dwindled, tankers couldn't get in, and people around the state waited in line for hours - from before dawn until after dark - for a fill-up. But the crisis eased, and in recent days, it was rare to wait more than five minutes for a pump.
Then came Rita, which had strengthened to a Category 4 by midday Wednesday, threatening refineries off the coast of Texas.
By mid-afternoon in Jackson, vehicles were lined up 25 deep at Shell and Texaco stations just off Interstate 55 - and the lines were growing rapidly.
Debbie Altman of Summit filled up her sport utility vehicle at the Texaco.
"I'm not panic buying,'' Altman said. "I just need enough gas to get back home. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here.''
Altman said she had gone to a doctor's appointment in Jackson and had heard workers in the office talk about the possibility of a gasoline shortage.
"Isn't it just crazy rumors, about how people believe them?'' she said.
At a routine briefing Wednesday morning, Harrison County Emergency Management Director Joe Spraggins advised reporters and the public it would be wise to top off fuel tanks. Though he didn't want to create panic, Spraggins warned that "fuel may become a commodity again.''
Even the possibility was enough for Ginger Byrd of Pass Christian, who dropped what she was doing at the office and rushed to the nearest Texaco station.
"I might need gas for the generator,'' she said.
The few drivers who hadn't heard the rumor were baffled by the sudden lines.
"I was kind of wondering what was going on,'' said car salesman Les Fillingame, out on his lunch break.
"I really don't think it's true,'' he said. "If there was a shortage, they would be rationing under the military with Humvees.''