Hurricane Series: Fuel Availability

Hurricane Rita Evacuation
In 2005, Houston's hurricane evacuation was the stuff of nightmares. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports in our week-long hurricane series, emergency officials believe they've devised a plan to keep that from happening again.

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On a lazy summer day, filling up the gas tank is no big deal, unless you're considering the impact on your wallet. But think back two years. Those hours just before Hurricane Rita was forecast to make landfall...practically every gas station in the city was empty. No one could have predicted sitting on the freeway for 20 hours. And no one could have predicted one of the biggest problems would be fuel availability.

"First of all, I was clueless about how fuel works."

That's how Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw sums up his knowledge of the fuel situation prior to Hurricane Rita.

"Fuel doesn't work the way you think it does, they don't top off those pumps. They do it to inventory because it's a business model. And as you put more people on the road, they're not ready for that surge capability."

So the state developed a plan to work with the private sector to make sure gasoline is where it needs to be. Jack Colley is the chief of the Governor's Division of Emergency Management. He put together a Fuel Team made up of members of the oil industry.

"We asked them to help us solve this. Because really when it gets down to it, it is a private sector issue and that's fuel availability. And then how we can help them and partner with them to insure that we have fuel in that area. And we put together a plan by which we can -- about 72 hours out before the arrival of tropical storm winds -- we're able to surge fuel into an area."

Industry suppliers will make fuel available along the evacuation routes, whether by topping off gas station tanks outside the city or positioning emergency fuel trucks along the highways.

However, there appears to be a breakdown in communication. Colley's office couldn't provide contact information for the head of the Fuel Team, David Sexton, who's the Vice President of Shell in the U.S. In fact, staffmembers in Colley's office could only locate one phone number for someone associated with the team. That person then provided another phone number for a member of the team, Martin Padilla, who also works for Shell. Repeated calls to Padilla were not returned and Shell Media Relations staff did not grant access to either Padilla or Fuel Team Leader David Sexton.

So I asked Dennis Storemsky, who heads up the division of Homeland Security for the City of Houston, if the lack of communication from the Fuel Team concerned him. He speculated there could be several reasons for it, but stopped short of saying it would be a problem.

"I feel confident that...when the bell rings, everybody that has a part to play are going to do what they need to do. There's a lot of planning that goes into it, but once the bell rings -- what's written in the plan is less important than the fact that you did planning."

And there has been planning...lots of it. Hopefully those plans don't all hinge on a phone number.

Tomorrow at this time...

"And if you need to evacuate, don't wait until the last minute. Don't wait until you have a senior elected official saying it's time to leave."

...the final report in our Hurricane Series. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...