Reasonable profit or price gouging? State attorney investigating complaints

As throngs of hurricane-panicked Floridians stormed into box stores, grocers and gas stations Wednesday, they faced even more anxiety at the cash register: long lines and sticker shock.

If you could find water, some local merchants were selling it for as much as $18 a case, with gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon in South Florida.

Duarte’s Dollar store in Coral Gables was charging $11.99 for a case of 24 bottles of Zephyrhills water on Tuesday. A clerk explained that the high price was what the store “normally’’ charges for cases of water.

On Twitter, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said her hotline had received “hundreds’’ of calls about price gouging and that the office was investigating each complaint.

Online sellers were also being taken to task on social media. On Wednesday, for example, a 24-pack of half-liter bottles of water was selling for as much as $25 from a third-party seller on Amazon.com.

One piece of good news: Ride-sharing service Uber announced that it would be capping prices during the storm to ensure that drivers wouldn’t take advantage of its customers.

By law, it is illegal to sell, lease or offer to sell anything for an amount “grossly’’ exceeding the average price for that product or commodity during the 30 days before a state declares an emergency — unless the seller can justify the price.

If there is a gross disparity between the prior price and the current charge, it is considered price gouging.

The line for plywood at Home Depot in Oakwood Plaza in Hollywood stretched to the back of the store, with pickup trucks and SUVs lined up outside to pick up supplies.

Garfield Jones said he drove from store to store for two hours Wednesday morning to get enough supplies to board up his home in Lauderdale Lakes.

“I got my plywood now, but now I’m low on gas,’’ he said. “I’m driving without my air conditioning on.’’

Romelia Augustin waited nearly three hours at the B.J.’s in Hollywood with her crying 18-month-old daughter.

She managed to get four cases of water, but didn’t even look at how much they cost because she was so tired of waiting.

A couple of fights broke out as the water arrived, she and others said.

“Everyone was arguing over who was in line and who cut in,’’ said Hamiyd Mark, a customer who lives in Hollywood.

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s hotline is 305-547-3300. Attorney General Pam Bondi also has a hotline, 866-9-NO-SCAM.

In Broward County, the number to call is 800-435-7352.