Florida Senate bill would create panel to plan hurricane fuel reserve

  • Lloyd Dunkelberger
  • News Service of Florida
6:04 p.m Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018 Politics
Flagler Drive is raked by wind, rain and water from the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach on Sept. 10, 2017, as winds from Hurricane Irma raked the county. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

After runs on gas stations as people tried to flee Hurricane Irma, a Senate committee Thursday approved creation of a task force to develop plans for stockpiling fuel across the state.

The proposal (SB 700) would set up the Florida Strategic Fuel Reserve Task Force within the Florida Division of Emergency Management. The task force would recommend a strategic fuel reserve plan to meet private and public needs during emergencies and disasters.

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Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the proposal came from people who couldn’t get away from areas that were expected to be hit by Hurricane Irma in September.

“You remember how during Irma drivers were stranded and coming up from the Keys and other areas in the state from where fuel was running out,” Torres said. “I think this bill gives an opportunity now for the state to prepare better in the future so we can have those fuel locations up and ready in case a disaster comes.”

Florida strained to keep up with fuel demand as Hurricane Irma neared the state. As 6.5 million people were ordered to evacuate their homes, others scrambled for last-minute hurricane supplies. Motorists reported spending up to 12 hours on routes that typically are covered in six or seven hours.

The situation grew worse as ports, where fuel is delivered to the state, were closed due to storm winds.

Rushing fuel to South Florida before the storm, the Florida Highway Patrol served as escorts for tanker trucks.

A month later, when Hurricane Nate threatened the Gulf Coast, Gov. Rick Scott acknowledged that Florida was better prepared for Nate than Irma because there weren’t concerns about fuel shortages.

In October, Scott directed the Florida Department of Transportation to work with other state agencies, ports, law enforcement and fuel retailers to determine how to increase fuel capacity during emergencies.

The agency was supposed to produce recommendations by last month for fuel distribution and availability to consumers. Neither the agency nor Scott’s office responded by 5 p.m. Thursday when asked about the status of the report.

The nine-member task force, appointed by the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker, would be required to make recommendations by April 30, 2019. The proposal has a one-time cost of $569,000 for contractor and staff expenses.

The Senate bill doesn’t have a House version, but it is similar to a recommendation from the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. That recommendation called for the Department of Transportation to contract for an independent study on the feasibility of establishing strategically located petroleum distribution centers.

Other select-committee recommendations included considering the use of railroads to speed fuel delivery into areas affected by storms.

The Senate bill drew unanimous support Thursday from the Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee. It would need to get approved by two more committees before it could go to the full Senate.