WASHINGTON -- As long lines persisted at gas stations in the New York metropolitan area, federal authorities moved Friday to restore supplies, instructing the Defense Department to send 24 million gallons of fuel to the region and lifting restrictions on deliveries by foreign-flagged ships.
With the Port of New York's reopening to tankers Thursday, and the return of a critical Northeast fuel pipeline to full capacity Friday, the biggest outstanding problems are the lack of power at hundreds of gas stations and continued panic buying by the public, industry officials said.
Because electricity will not be restored in parts of central New Jersey for seven to 10 days, gasoline shortages may remain severe in some areas. As of Friday, according to AAA, only 40 to 50 percent of the gas stations in New York City and New Jersey were operating, and even fewer were operating on Long Island. Most of the stations were out of service because of power failures.
"We have seen some stations open as power is restored, but other stations have closed while running out of gas," AAA spokesman Michael Green said. "The long lines and supply problems will go away once power is restored."
The Obama administration, realizing the political peril if it were to be blamed for fuel shortages in the days before the election, significantly accelerated its response Friday. It authorized the Defense Department to hire hundreds of trucks that will be used to deliver 12 million gallons each of gasoline and diesel fuel, mostly from commercial suppliers, to staging areas in New Jersey. The department is handling the task because its Defense Logistics Agency has contracting powers that enable it to move quickly.
From the staging areas, the fuel will be distributed throughout the region in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help resupply stations. Together, the gasoline and diesel are enough for 1.6 million vehicles with 15-gallon tanks.
The Pentagon has also been authorized by the Energy Department and the White House to tap the Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve. It will draw as much as 2 million gallons of diesel fuel -- part of the 12 million total -- for government emergency responders, helping them to keep electricity generators, water pumps, federal buildings, trucks and other vehicles running. The oil reserve, created by the federal government in 2000, holds 42 million gallons of ultralow-sulfur diesel at terminals in Groton, Conn., and Revere, Mass. It is the first time that fuel has been released from the reserve.
Earlier Friday, the Homeland Security Department temporarily lifted a rule prohibiting foreign-flagged ships from delivering fuel between U.S. ports, a move that should soon bring additional tankers to the New York area with refined gasoline and diesel.
And Thursday, the Defense Department used 17 of its aircraft to move 630 tons of equipment, including 10 bucket trucks and 20 pickup trucks, from West Coast utility companies to an Air National Guard base 60 miles north of New York City. "We are working this as a team," W. Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator, said at a news conference Friday morning.
Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service, said the federal government may end up sending more fuel than is needed. "Anyone running for office would rather err on the side of excess," he said. "It's a confidence builder. It will help placate people who think we are on the threshold of crisis."
Government officials said they were confident that the shortages would ease in coming week, as power is restored and the fuel now being delivered to the region arrives.
"There is no reason to panic; there is no reason for anxiety," New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at a news conference Friday. "We understand why there was a shortage, for very definable reasons. We also understand why it's going to be better, and it's going to be better in the near future."
The fuel shortage has emerged as one of the most widespread problems in the storm's aftermath, worsening the suffering in the region. Large parts of the public transit system remained out of service, and 3.5 million customers had no power Friday afternoon, down from 8 million earlier in the week, according to Energy Department figures.
Roughly 258,000 Pennsylvania utility customers were still without power by late afternoon Friday, down from the 1.2 million outages statewide at the storm's peak. In the Philadelphia area, Peco hoped to have power restored to 90 percent of affected customers by midnight Friday. The utility said some remote portions of Montgomery and Bucks counties might not have service restored until early next week.
Two more deaths in northeastern Pennsylvania's rural Wayne County and one in Lehigh County were blamed Friday on the storm, bringing the total in the state to 15.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said all of the state's major highways were open as of Friday, though many smaller thoroughfares blocked by downed trees were shut down.
Of the Northeast region's 127 fuel terminals -- which hold gasoline, heating oil and diesel fuel after they are delivered by pipeline, ship or local refinery -- 25 were hit by flooding or power failures. Most have reopened or are preparing to reopen shortly, the Energy Department said Friday.
Two refineries in the New York area remained out of service -- most importantly, the Phillips 66 refinery in Linden, N.J., which could be out for weeks because of flooding. But the Port of New York reopening Thursday, after the Coast Guard removed dangerous debris floating in the water, allowed tankers sitting offshore to begin making deliveries.
New York City officials announced Friday afternoon that power should be restored to all of Manhattan by today. Con Edison said it would restore power to a vast majority of its customers in New York State by Nov. 11, while Public Service Electric and Gas, which serves New Jersey, forecast that its efforts to restore power would be virtually complete in the next seven to 10 days.
These efforts will mean more gas stations reopening as power returns.
Despite the closed gas stations, and local instances of gouging, prices at the pump have not shot up in most places. AAA reported that the average price for a gallon of regular gasoline in New Jersey on Friday was $3.56, only 6 cents above the national average. Some communities were imposing alternating fueling days for vehicles with license plates ending in even and odd numbers. The average New York price was more than 25 cents higher, but still below $4.
Energy experts said their greatest fear had been that the storm would damage several large refineries on the Delaware River. But none were seriously affected, and about 75 percent of the region's refinery capacity remained operational.
Associated Press contributed.