Fa­mil­iar scram­ble for fuel left af­ter storm

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Beth Kassab | Staff Writer

Hur­ri­cane Irma brought new lev­els of chaos to Florida with the largest evac­u­a­tion and the most wide­spread power out­ages in state his­tory.

But for all of Irma’s dis­tinc­tions in size and in­ten­sity — its girth blan­keted the penin­sula and it clocked 185 mph winds for 37 hours be­fore mak­ing its Florida land­fall — the storm de­liv­ered an all-too fa­mil­iar con­se­quence of Florida’s an­nual hur­ri­cane sea­son: a short­age of gaso­line.

At least one prom­i­nent politi­cian said the state wasn’t ad­e­quately pre­pared and called for a gov­ern­ment re­serve of gaso­line, while other of­fi­cials said more un­der­ground pipelines could be the an­swer.

“A Florida Gaso­line Sup­ply Re­serve would en­sure that res­i­dents and first re­spon­ders have ac­cess to an emer­gency sup­ply of fuel and help

“They knew this was com­ing. They knew they needed to in­crease their vol­umes, and they did.” David Mica, Florida Pe­tro­leum Coun­cil ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor

pre­vent the short­ages that may have kept some from evac­u­at­ing and may hin­der re­cov­ery ef­forts go­ing for­ward,” wrote U.S. Sen. Bill Nel­son, a Demo­crat, in a let­ter to the U.S. Depart­ment of En­ergy on Mon­day.

Through­out the Irma or­deal, Florid­i­ans waited in long lines to fill their tanks — if they could find gas at all. About half of the sta­tions in ma­jor cities or those along evac­u­a­tion routes such as Or­lando, Mi­ami and Gainesville were still out of gas two days af­ter the storm.

Ray Pow­ers of Apopka said he waited for 45 min­utes Wed­nes­day at a RaceTrac sta­tion near his home to buy fuel for his home gen­er­a­tors.

“I’ve seen sta­tions with­out gas, and I guess that means the ones that do have [it] are busier,” he said.

The prob­lem was rem­i­nis­cent of the fuel short­age in the state af­ter hur­ri­canes Charley and Frances in 2004, when the sup­ply was so low there was fear the tanks of first re­spon­ders or util­ity trucks needed to re­store power would run empty. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der that al­lowed the state to help co­or­di­nate the sup­ply.

Peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the state’s fuel in­dus­try said Florida learned some im­por­tant lessons from that year when four ma­jor storms struck.

The scarcity of gas in the days be­fore and af­ter Irma, though, leave ques­tions about whether the state was re­ally pre­pared for the Big One.

Nel­son’s let­ter said there ap­peared to be a “lack of ad­e­quate gaso­line re­serves in Florida prior to the storm.”

He sug­gested that Washington con­sider cre­at­ing a gaso­line sup­ply re­serve in Florida sim­i­lar to what was set up in the North­east af­ter Su­per­storm Sandy when, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral en­ergy depart­ment, some sta­tions in New York didn’t have gas for as long as 30 days. The re­gional re­serve con­tains 1 mil­lion bar­rels spread among New York Har­bor, Bos­ton and Maine.

Repub­li­can Sen. Marco Ru­bio wrote to the U.S. Depart­ment of En­ergy just be­fore Irma made land­fall in Florida to urge the depart­ment to “do ev­ery­thing in its power” to as­sure the state would have enough fuel, though he didn’t of­fer spe­cific rec­om­men­da­tions.

His of­fice said the sen­a­tor is open to ex­plor­ing po­ten­tial so­lu­tions to re­duce fuel sup­ply dis­rup­tions in Florida dur­ing storms.

One of Florida’s main pe­tro­leum lob­by­ists sug­gested a gov­ern­ment-con­trolled re­serve would bring more cost and trou­ble than it’s worth.

“Where are you go­ing to put this [re­serve] strate­gi­cally?” asked David Mica, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Florida Pe­tro­leum Coun­cil. “The po­ten­tial of that get­ting af­fected is very sub­stan­tial as well and what do you do when that thing loses its power? … If you build this emer­gency sup­ply, you need emer­gency power gen­er­a­tion, so the costs bal­loon even more for this gov­ern­ment cen­ter.”

He sug­gested a bet­ter so­lu­tion might be a new un­der­ground pipe­line that in­jects Florida with more fuel from states fur­ther up the East Coast, which could be less sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­rup­tions from hur­ri­canes.

The Cen­tral Florida Pipe­line, which brings gaso­line and diesel from the Port of Tampa Bay to a ter­mi­nal in Taft south of Or­lando, was turned off or only par­tially op­er­at­ing for sev­eral days be­cause of Irma.

A spokes­woman for Kinder Mor­gan, one of the na­tion’s largest en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture com­pa­nies and owner of the pipe­line, said the line be­gan op­er­at­ing fully again by Wed­nes­day.

Mica said some of the peo­ple call­ing for more fuel re­serves in the wake of Irma are the “same peo­ple who op­posed in­fra­struc­ture, who don’t want per­mit­ting and land use con­sid­er­a­tions for these kinds of struc­tures.”

But the brother of for­mer U.S. Rep. John Mica also ac­knowl­edged that there could be room for some im­prove­ment in how the state and its fuel in­dus­try han­dles its gaso­line sup­plies be­fore and af­ter a storm.

“They knew this was com­ing. They knew they needed to in­crease their vol­umes, and they did,” Mica said. “We were able to ex­e­cute — not flaw­lessly, but pretty darn good — a his­toric evac­u­a­tion, and now we will do it with re-en­try.”

He said it is too early for a full ac­count­ing of what went right and what went wrong. But, he said, there were some marked im­prove­ments over 2004 when Bush in­ter­vened.

One rea­son a gas sta­tion could be run­ning on empty right next door to an­other one that is pump­ing fuel has to do with how each of the com­pa­nies buys its gaso­line. Some sta­tions and com­pa­nies have long-term con­tracts for fuel while oth­ers buy gas off what is known as an “open rack” that al­lows re­tail­ers to pur­chase fuel on the spot for the go­ing price.

When sup­plies become low, the open rack of­ten shuts down so that fuel com­pa­nies can ful­fill their obli­ga­tions to cus­tomers with con­tracts.

Back in 2004, one prob­lem was that some gov­ern­ment first re­spon­ders or other crit­i­cal work­ers such as util­ity re­pair crews were re­ly­ing on that spot mar­ket.

This time around, Mica said, fewer gov­ern­ment agen­cies and com­pa­nies responding to the hur­ri­cane’s af­ter­math ap­pear to be as de­pen­dent on buy­ing fuel that way.

“I’ve not been wo­ken up in the mid­dle of the night that a ma­jor power sup­ply fa­cil­ity or gov­ern­ment am­bu­lance sys­tem has no fuel to get to a nurs­ing home or things like that,” he said.

Peo­ple who rep­re­sent the gas in­dus­try point out that sup­ply isn’t the only prob­lem af­ter a hur­ri­cane.

Sta­tions with­out elec­tric­ity can’t pump fuel even if their tanks are filled. And de­liv­ery trucks can be blocked from sta­tions be­cause of flood­ing or roads clogged with trees and other de­bris. Af­ter the big storms hit in 2004 and 2005, the Leg­is­la­ture added a new law that re­quired new gas sta­tions, along with some older ones along evac­u­a­tion routes, to have wiring for back-up gen­er­a­tors ... but it didn’t re­quire the sta­tions to have the gen­er­a­tors.

Be­fore Irma hit, Gov. Rick Scott waived reg­u­la­tions and urged other states to do so as well so that trucks and barges could ar­rive faster. He also or­dered state po­lice to es­cort de­liv­ery trucks mak­ing their way to sta­tions along evac­u­a­tion routes. But with a third of the state’s res­i­dents or­dered to evac­u­ate and then, af­ter the storm, mak­ing their way back home, the de­mand was more than sup­pli­ers could meet.

“There’s no way to have enough sup­ply for 6 mil­lion peo­ple leav­ing at one time,” said James Miller, spokesman for the Florida Pe­tro­leum Mar­keters and Con­ve­nience Store As­so­ci­a­tion. “If we could drone drop it in there, we would. We’re do­ing ev­ery­thing we can right now.”

KYLE ARNOLD/STAFF

Like most area sta­tions Tues­day, this 7-Eleven on Colo­nial Drive in Or­lando cov­ers its empty gas pumps with bags. Of­fi­cials are de­bat­ing fuel pre­pared­ness for fu­ture emer­gen­cies.

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