After The Storms

The 2017 hurricane season tested the fuel infrastructure and the convenience industry, which emerged as a beacon of hope to affected communities.
December 21, 2017

Portions of this article appear in the current issue of NACS Magazine.November 30 marked the end of a truly historic and devastating 2017 hurricane season. From August through September, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria wreaked havoc on numerous U.S. and Caribbean communities. The end of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season also couldn’t come quick enough for the country’s convenience and fuel retailers, which faced fuel outages, panic buying and mass evacuations, as well as dealing with stores or employees’ homes damaged or ruined by the storms.

The speed at which Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria intensified and made landfall proved to bring significant challenges to the U.S. retail fuel supply and distribution system as well, with Harvey making landfall in Texas on August 25, Irma blasting Florida on September 10, and Maria hitting Puerto Rico on September 20.

Hurricane Harvey was the first major hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since 2005, bringing historic levels of rainfall to Texas and Louisiana and causing massive flooding. As a result, 48 out of the 141 U.S. refineries (34%) along with major oil drilling and production sites in the Gulf, two major pipelines (Colonial and Explorer) serving the mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Midwest, and more than 18,968 convenience stores in Texas and Louisiana were directly impacted.

Just over a week later, Hurricane Irma hit Florida as a Category 5 hurricane. In anticipation of Hurricane Irma, the state issued mandatory evacuation orders, leading to a significant increase in demand for gasoline at a time when supply infrastructure was still coming back online. Florida is home to 9,930 convenience stores, with 6,639 of those stores selling gasoline. Hurricane Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years. The Category 4 storm caused massive destruction and knocked out 100% of the power across the entire island.

During the crisis, NACS worked to share resources and information to members. NACS mobilized quickly to provide timely resources ahead of the hurricanes, and activated a multi-tiered preparation, recovery and relief communications plan that involved creating highly visible tools online and in communicating critical messages to the media.

From Canada to Texas, NACS members stepped up to raise funds, send drinking water, deliver other basic supplies and necessities, provide generators, heavy equipment and fuel to areas that needed help most.”

Focusing on the impact of the hurricanes on fuel supply and distribution, NACS developed and shared resources across its media platforms and recorded two special Convenience Matters podcasts explaining how the hurricanes disrupted supply around the country. These resources were critical in addressing concerns over supply “outages” and concerns that panic buying would greatly outstrip supply. At the same time, NACS also shared tools for retailers in affected areas, as Texas and Florida are home to approximately 18% of all U.S. convenience stores selling fuel.

NACS was in constant communication with critical industry stakeholders, including the Texas Food & Fuel and Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, as well as other national fuels-specific groups and industry experts. Together, we shared our tools and insights so that the industry could best communicate to relevant stakeholders the ultimate impact on our industry’s fueling infrastructure. We developed new resources to help explain market conditions, focusing on topics such as:

  • What UST owners can do after a flood: Approximately 558,000 underground storage tanks (USTs) in the United States store gasoline or hazardous substances, and these UST systems can be vulnerable to damage during natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey—and can even release regulated substances into the environment. Before returning a damaged UST to service, the owner or operator needs to ensure the system has been properly evaluated and restored to safe operating condition.
  • How refineries and pipelines resume operations: More than 25% of U.S. refining capacity is located toward the Texas coast. So, as major storms such as Hurricane Harvey make their way through this area, tracking the storm’s path is critical to determining how much of the entire transportation fuels infrastructure will be affected, and the time it may take to bring operations back online quickly and safely.
  • How disasters affect fuel prices: Leading up to and following a natural disaster, higher prices at the pump often lead the public to assume a retailer is price gouging.

Additionally, NACS members worked with the American Red Cross on hurricane relief efforts. In June, NACS announced a partnership with the Red Cross to enhance the convenience store industry’s community giving. NACS is the first—and only—retail trade association to create such a program with the Red Cross, and an online “Donate Now” button was created specifically for NACS and its retail members.

Working With Government
The swift response of the federal and state governments regarding key waivers (i.e. waivers affecting fuel composition, the transportation of supplies, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to feed our most vulnerable population) was crucial to the success of helping the victims of the hurricanes.

In 2005, NACS worked with Congress to give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to waive certain regulations affecting the motor fuels system in times of emergency. EPA’s immediate use of these waivers was critical to bringing the entire fuel supply chain into operation as quickly and safely as possible. For example, this flexibility allowed winter blends of gasoline to enter into the market before the traditional transition date of September 15.

Examples of other waivers:

  • The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration used its authority to waive the hours of service and certain other operations requirements, which helped transport fuel and supplies from long distances to needed areas more quickly.
  • EPA issued emergency waivers of certain fuel standards and hours of operation in affected areas. EPA also issued a waiver for "summertime" gasoline requirements in PADD 1, PADD 2 and PADD 3.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the Colonial Pipeline Company’s request for an emergency waiver of certain requirements of its tariffs for petroleum products transportation between origin points in the Gulf Coast region and destination points on its pipeline system throughout the Southern and Eastern Seaboard states.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed SNAP benefits to be used to purchase hot prepared meals, which is not normally allowed except in times of emergency. NACS worked closely with USDA officials to provide this assistance to our most vulnerable populations.

In times of disaster, whether natural or man-made, convenience stores are a beacon in their communities. They strive to stay open as long as possible without putting their own safety at risk, making sure first responders have fuel and food to bring communities back from their toughest times.

What also makes the difference during times of crisis is hearing from our members across the globe who were willing and able to help. And indeed, they did help: From Canada to Texas, NACS members stepped up to raise funds, send drinking water, deliver other basic supplies and necessities, provide generators, heavy equipment and fuel to areas that needed help most.

As communities continue to recover, NACS, its members and state associations are just one email, text or phone call away, ready to assist.