Every end-of-the-world movie starts with a single thing, something out of place or not quite right. The protagonist sees it and ignores it, but the audience knows better. Our morning-drive hero doesn’t wise up until a pattern emerges: that open car door in the neighbor’s yard, the emergency broadcast tone on the radio — and finally, the shambling guy who panhandles under the overpass, even now approaching the car door, is actually zombie.
This slow dawning is how I discovered this week’s gas shortage, caused by devastation from Hurricane Harvey. The first gas line didn’t look like much from behind the wheel, heading from East Dallas to Oak Lawn. I thought maybe it was the result of an accident or maybe some Houston-bound aid convoy. It was an odd enough site to consider turning around, but the gas station where I would have turned around to check out the first had a long line, too.
That’s the first moment you get that sinking feeling. The system is broken. Somewhere, something is chipping away at the civilization that cocoons us. That prickling feeling is dread. It’s a little different than fear. Fear inspires quick reactions that can embarrass you or save your life, depending on the situation. Dread works slowly and rusts away common sense.
In North Texas, this dread is not caused by something ghostly or unfathomable. Everything in this gas shortage is quite rational. Refineries are closed, pipelines are shut down and a section of the gas delivery supply chain is broken. Gas is still being delivered, but at a slower rate. Gas station owners are not sure when resupply will arrive, and QuickTrip spokesmen say some stations won’t receive any to enable reliable deliveries to the ones that remain open.
In response, Texas residents flocked to gas stations, blocking lanes of traffic and putting the acrid whiff of apocalypse into the air. By the afternoon, every gas station was like a fire-ant mound, to be avoided and loathed from a safe distance. Vehicles lined up on side roads, main roads and wherever they could jam into parking lots. Many brought handheld gas cans. The lines seemed disjointed and clumsy, slow-moving grinds of patience and resilience. I heard one secondhand story about a fistfight.
But in a time of crisis or not, waiting on a gas line is dull. The exceptions are outside the stations, on the roads, where traffic swerved around the drivers who turned driving lanes into ration lines. These caused lots of unexpected merging and created swirls of chaos outside the stations.
This experience brings something besides zombie movies into sharp relief: how this disparate, divided society is so tightly interconnected.
The obvious connection is with our fellow Texans and others gritting it out in the direct aftermath of the storm. As much as images of the flooding pains us in North Texas, the reality of that storm is very far from Dallas. Distance has not tamped down the outpouring of support, but we are reacting to images on a screen. Pixels.
The gas shortage is not an image that can be swiped away. The impact of that storm has finally reached out for us through our driver’s windows.
Another, less considered connection is a shared reliance on the supply chain. Each of us is perched on a delicate web of manufacturing, imports, delivery and production. This web keeps us alive, maybe too well. We are used to having fresh oysters in landlocked cities, flown in daily. But the reality is that we will starve without the supply chain. Food deliveries depend on the roads, the factories and, above all, the gasoline to move goods around. Shelves go bare quickly.
Gas is a vital strand of that supply chain web on which civilization is built. Without it, the rest of the strands start to bend and snap. No wonder we feel dread when the pumps run dry. Even diehard DART riders should be alarmed.
The final connection is the shared media. Is it a panic when the gas stations run out of gas and people stop everything to line up? I’d rather say it’s a reaction to stimuli. People heard about the supply disruption, and many responded the same way. They went to buy gas, causing huge lines and a deeper shortage. Still, in an era of fractured media and society, it’s almost refreshing when everyone does to something in a similar, predictable fashion.
There is more than the specter of dry tanks prompting people to the gas station queue. I didn’t see people pushing cars into gas stations. They could wait and refill later, understanding some stations are closed and it might not be as easy as normal.
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But we have all been living images of the hell-storm from Corpus Christi and Houston, and many are emotionally invested in what’s going on. The group reaction is to send donations. Many North Texans donated money and supplies to relief efforts. It’s like bringing food to the wake. It’s what you do.
Now, without a drop of water touching our boots, the storm has come for us. And the group activity has become filling up the gas tank. Now we’re all part of the story. Even better, we’re victims! Real heroes are at work saving lives, but we get the jazz just by waiting in line to fill up a gas tank. For now.
That’s a lot of cynicism to absorb on a single ride home. After all, I filled the tank when the extent of the flooding first became apparent. So I tried to put it aside after I parked, and headed to the back porch with a laptop to focus on other work. But the gas crisis outside kept returning to my thoughts. That three-quarters of a tank didn't seem like so much, all of a sudden.
It was a sunny day and the dogs were sleeping in the yard. But when they woke up and start barking, I looked for zombies. I have to admit, sometimes I want to see them.