Familiar scramble for fuel left after storm
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.”
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.