As storm-weary consumers idled in tense lines Thursday to fill up gas tanks, the U.S. Coast Guard took steps to ease fuel shortages by opening up the ports of New York and New Jersey, which were closed before Hurricane Sandy.
The move came as residents of both states waited in lines at gas stations hoping for fuel for home generators and for cars and trucks that were frequently stuck in fuel-wasting traffic snarls. There were reports of price gouging in Rockland and Westchester counties and even violence at some stations.
In Yonkers, Mayor Mike Spano issued an emergency order banning people from buying more than 10 gallons of gas per day. Pumps throughout the city were being reset to automatically shut off when the limit is reached.
Officials in Rockland County called for similar rationing to conserve dwindling supplies of fuel.
"Motorists are now driving to Westchester County, specifically Yonkers, to fill their gas tanks," Spano said. "We are attempting to be proactive in issuing this order so that our Yonkers residents have enough gasoline until the supply is once again at full capacity."
A fistfight broke out Thursday between customers at the Getty station on Route 59 in Monsey, and traffic stretched for at least half a mile on both sides of the road as customers rushed to the only functioning station in the area, said Chiam Tzik, the station's manager. He was directing motorists to the pumps in a bright orange vest.
"These things bring out the best and worst in people," he said. "This is going to get ugly before it gets better."
The closure of the ports had strangled regional gas supplies, leaving many station owners dry by Tuesday afternoon and forcing others, like Tzik, to seek alternative supplies of petroleum from wholesalers in port cities like Newburgh.
Outside gas stations across the region, tensions ran high as beleaguered attendants turned into traffic cops.
Jessica Peters, of Montvale, N.J., had joined the line at the Getty station hoping to fill up her tank, and found people honking their horns and gesturing with their hands as harried store workers tried to get motorists to form an orderly line down the street.
"This is crazy," said the 35-year-old secretary, who said she was running on empty after spending the morning looking for an open station. "I've never seen anything like this. People are acting like animals."
Utilities reported 346,192 Hudson Valley customers still without power Thursday afternoon, down from about a half million immediately after Monday's storm.
Down the street, a Super Value ran out of gas Wednesday, and despite having power, it hasn't been able get more from its regional distributor.
"It's not the power, we're having delivery problems," said Alex Ereifj, a 25-year-old store clerk. "People have been coming from New Jersey looking for gas. I don't know what to tell them."
In a crisis -- especially among a population not used to a hurricane's full force -- customers tend to stock up more on gas, which pressures existing supplies, analysts say. And when power outages disable retailers, supplies get strained quickly. Even stations that have received fresh supplies quickly found themselves running on empty.
"It's extremely typical," said Gregg Laskoski, a senior petroleum analyst at Gas Buddy. "We see this virtually every time there's a major storm or a hurricane."
Ron Levine, a spokesman for Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, said the county has been getting reports from consumers about price gouging by unscrupulous gas station owners jacking up prices as high as $5 a gallon in some places.
He said the county's consumer protection bureau is investigating numerous claims of overpricing.
"We will not tolerate it, especially in times o