Pumping Gas After Katrina

Blake Parker must wait until a group of old men finish browsing jams and jellies before he can buy gas.

The wait can be a long one at this one-man station just inside the city limits of Sumrall.

Johnny Aultman pockets a few bills while handing over a mason jar filled with preserves to a man who looks as though he is made of melted wax. Then, he smiles and walks over to Parker’s open car window. The two men shake before Parker pulls up to the pump. Aultman’s slate blue overalls smeared with grime look as if they are filled with boulders instead of a man.

Parker tells him how much gas he needs, and Aultman chats, one eye squinted against the sun, as he pumps it for him.

Following Hurricane Katrina, people in the Sumrall area needed gasoline above all other commodoties. Without power, only one place in town worked around the clock to provide it.

Johnnie Aultman’s Gas Station and Tire Service, known to most in the area only as “Jack’s,” was the only gas station in the town of Sumrall to provide fuel during the week following the hurricane.

According to Aultman, on Aug. 31, after he and family cleared the debris away from the station, an electrician who wished to remain anonymous asked if he could wire one of the station’s pumps to a generator to get gas for his family. Aultman said he would be more than happy to do so.

“I just figured that we could help,” said Aultman. “I told him that people were hurting. So, I asked him to stay.”

After setting up the generator, Aultman pumped gas for four hours before the electrician had to return home.

“People were upset, but they didn’t say anything,” said Aultman, “He had to go, and he did all he could.”

Another man arrived after dark with a generator who wanted to use it to get his own gas, said Aultman. Aultman told him he could do so on one condition. He would have to leave the generator until everyone in town got the gas they needed. The individual agreed, and the station pumped till 1:30a.m. with no limits as to how much gas one could purchase.

Sumrall police were on hand to provide order.

“It was hectic. You couldn’t see the people until they got close to the pumps,” said Aultman. “But, we stayed till there was no one left in line.”

The following day Aultman met with Mayor Jerry King and pumped the remaining gas for emergency and city vehicles.

“I am so grateful to Mr. Johnnie Aultman,” said King. “It is my understanding that the Shell station could not be operated with generators because it has a modern, computerized system that cannot be made to operate that way. The owner of that station is a distributor, and he chose to take his gas to various other stations to let them sell the gas that he couldn’t.”

On Sept.1, Aultman had his other pump rewired, and by order of the mayor he limited his customers to $10 per vehicle. He pumped from 7:30 that morning to 1:00 p.m., then he was empty.

Many in Sumrall remember Aultman’s good deed. Some, like Blake Parker, are still returning the favor.

“I plan to only buy gas from Jack from now on,” said Parker, who lives outside of Sumrall and depended on Aultman throughout the week following the hurricane. “Everybody knows Jack, but now we consider him a hero.”

As Parker drives away, Jack returns to his collection of fruits and jellies underneath the lights of the gas station and wipes his hands on a ragged yellow handkerchief.

“I just did what I could do,” said Aultman.