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U.S. retail gasoline shortages worsen as pipeline attempts restart

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By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) -Shortages of gasoline at retail stations in the U.S. Southeast became more widespread on Thursday after days of panic buying triggered by a major pipeline shutdown that is now in the early stages of an attempted restart.

Drivers from Virginia to Florida struggled to find service stations that still had fuel to sell, and those that succeeded waited in long lines to pay prices that had climbed to their highest in years.

Nicole Guy, a leasing agent in Atlanta, spent much of Thursday morning driving from one shuttered gas station to another in a desperate attempt to refill her tank, before pulling over to gather her thoughts.

"My sister paid $3.50 at the pump last night for her car," she said. "I thought if I went looking today I'd find a better deal. I never paid that much at the pump."

She said she was about to call friends for help finding fuel: "Maybe one of them knows of a spot," Guy said. "Otherwise I'll keep looking."

Around 70% of gas stations in the state of North Carolina were without fuel, along with about half the stations in Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia, an increase from Wednesday, according to tracking firm GasBuddy.

The average national gasoline price rose above $3.00 a gallon, the highest since October 2014, the American Automobile Association said, and prices in some areas jumped as much as 11 cents in a day.

The Colonial Pipeline, which shut Friday after a ransomware cyberattack, said it had begun the restart process but would take days to resume normal operations, something that experts said will keep fuel stations scrambling for supply.

The Colonial system carries 100 million gallons per day of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to the East Coast, nearly half the region’s supply. Motorists' tempers have frayed in recent days as panic buying led stations to run out even where normal wholesale deliveries were still being made.

State and federal authorities pleaded with motorists not to hoard gasoline, saying stockpiling would only make matters worse, and even had to issue a warning against using plastic bags to store fuel.

Ken Crawford, 51, a self-employed landscaper resorted to using a friends membership card to buy fuel at the members-only Sam's Club Fuel Center in metro Atlanta, after failing to find other retail stations that were open.

"I know it's not exactly kosher to use someone else's (card) but I'm in a spot," Crawford said. "I need gas and I don't see any places still open."

Katlyn Norton, 29, a stay-at-home mother of two from Mobile, Alabama, was in Atlanta Thursday visiting relatives and to take her children to the Atlanta Aquarium. She was lucky enough to find a Texaco still selling gas in Midtown Atlanta, charging about $3.43 a gallon for regular unleaded.

But she worried it would be the last top up for a while.

"We were supposed to head home today, but I'm not sure we'd get enough gas to make it," Norton said of the roughly five-hour trip to head more than 300 miles southwest.

"We thought about trying our luck, but with the kids, I think we'd better stay put. Better to be safe."

(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by David Gregorio and Aurora Ellis)

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