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How Harvey made it harder to evacuate for Irma

Evacuees from Florida were stranded on the sides of highways because of gas shortages.

Vehicles lined up at a gas station to prepare for Hurricane Irma in Doral, Florida on September 6.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

For the past several days, residents of Florida and neighboring states have been desperately trying to get out of the way of Irma, one of the largest and most powerful hurricanes ever recorded.

But the exodus has been hampered by another hurricane that struck two weeks earlier more than 1,000 miles away.

Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders covered almost 7 million people across Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. But many residents pulled into empty gas stations as they tried to flee the storm.

According to GasBuddy, an app that tracks gasoline prices and availability, major cities in Florida had fuel outages of 46 percent or more by Sunday afternoon. The worst was Gainesville, where 70 percent of gas stations were out of fuel.

Many had to deal with long lines, like this one in Spring Hill, a town north of Tampa, and tense encounters at the pump.

The scarcity also crept further North into North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia.

GasBuddy app showing empty fueling stations in Miami as Hurricane Irma made landfall

Particularly for Florida residents, the shortages exacerbated what were already stressful preparations for a massive, threatening hurricane. Some were stranded on the sides of highways and abandoned cars clogged evacuation routes, while other families were stuck at home due to high gas prices and low fuel levels.

But the gas crunch is also a stark illustration of the narrow bottlenecks in US energy infrastructure and how disruptions to energy production from extreme weather in one area can harm other regions.

“Harvey obviously shut down a vital connection Florida has to gasoline supply,” said Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy who I spoke to from Tallahassee, where he’s helping emergency responders. “Florida receives almost all its fuel, every gallon, from Gulf Coast refineries.”

Up to a quarter of US oil-refining capacity went offline ahead of the Texas hurricane as surging floodwaters inundated plants. These refineries are massive, billion-dollar industrial facilities and it will require weeks to assess flooding damage and restart production, continuing to cut into gasoline and diesel supplies around the country.

A visualization of fuel outages in Florida and Texas over the weekend

Shutting down flooded infrastructure after Harvey in the nation’s largest oil-producing state, including the largest oil refinery in the country, made a nation-wide dent in gasoline production. The United States saw a drop of roughly 2 million barrels a day of refined petroleum production during Harvey’s peak, according to DeHaan, a more than 10 percent bite out of the 19 million barrels the US guzzles a day.

As of last Thursday, US refinery capacity is still down 12.8 percent.

Florida officials saw this coming, but couldn’t do enough to stop it

Florida, which gets almost all of its oil by ship, saw its fuel deliveries stall ahead of Irma’s landfall, leading to panic-buying. Drivers rushed to fill up en masse, quickly depleting fueling infrastructure designed for cars that top off every week or so.

The New York Times reported that fuel was so scarce ahead of the storm that some residents followed tanker trucks around to see where they would dispense fuel. Florida Gov. Rick Scott told Floridians at a press conference Thursday that fuel trucks would receive police escorts.

Florida also asked neighboring states to lift some highway restrictions on trucks bringing gasoline and diesel into the state and provided a dedicated hotline for people who were unable to evacuate due to a lack of fuel (1-800-955-5504). And state officials also kept southbound highway lanes clear for fuel trucks to come in rather than allowing people to use the highways to get out, further exacerbating congestion.

The US federal government meanwhile issued waivers for the Jones Act, which bans foreign-flagged ships from transporting goods between US ports, allowing more vessels to transport fuel into Florida ahead of the storm.

The Environmental Protection Agency also issued waivers allowing trucks to use oil originally designated for heating homes.

While refineries in the Northeastern United States are now shipping more fuel via barges to Florida, DeHaan said it’s only “putting a bandage on a wound that’s gushing blood.”

The low fuel supply and high prices will linger

Fuel shipments to Florida have stopped with Irma now making its final pass across Florida’s coast.

“The fuel levels are being directly affected and impacted by the closure of the ports due to Irma,” said Alberto Moscoso, a spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Both Harvey and Irma will continue to strain gas supplies across the country as refineries and ports slowly reopen, so higher gasoline prices will persist in much of the country. “It does take weeks to restore gasoline markets to normal after an event like this,” DeHaan said.

Experiences with past hurricanes like Katrina show that it can take up to a month for gasoline prices to return to normal, but oil refineries can remain shuttered up to a year.

The fuel shortages also show that hurricanes are no longer just regional events, and that disaster planners have to pay close attention to the status of energy choke points.

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