Did Hurricane Katrina Cause Gasoline Rationing?

One of the disinformation chain emails that circulated in connection to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 was so flimsy, it finally stopped cold.

Like many messages of its type, the email was presented as an anecdote about workers at an oil refinery being warned by their supervisor to “keep their tanks full” because the storm had done enough damage to warrant gasoline rationing.

It is true that Katrina — which reached Louisiana on August 29 2005 and caused the deaths of more than 1,800 people — caused gas shortages and price gouging; as the New York Times reported in early September 2005:

After the sudden drop in oil supplies, gasoline sellers were quick to raise their prices. While gasoline averaged $2.60 a gallon earlier in the week, unleaded regular gas was selling yesterday at $3.09 at stations in West Palm Beach, Fla.; $3.49 in Indianapolis; and $3.25 in San Francisco. Premium fuel was going for up to $3.89 a gallon in Chicago.

Shortages and gasoline lines were reported in parts of South Carolina, the Dakotas, Arkansas and Kentucky.

CBS News reported that as then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration had moved to release oil from the emergency petroleum stockpile in order to help refineries around the Gulf Coast area, some “wholesale gasoline suppliers have begun limiting the amount of fuel they sell to retailers in certain markets.”

That reporting was corroborated in a Federal Trade Commission study on gas price manipulation published in 2006:

Differences in how wholesalers managed their contractual relationships with their distributors also may have significantly affected the dispersion of wholesale prices. Staff found that a number of wholesalers rationed limited gasoline supplies by means other than by increasing prices.

But we found no evidence of gasoline or water rationing being practiced at a significant scale either around New Orleans or in other parts of the country in connection with Katrina. Unlike other online ephemera that made its way online after the disaster, however, this particular claim was apparently thin enough that it has — unlike so many other examples of weaponized disinformation narratives — finally stopped circulating.

Update 8/31/2022, 3:16 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag