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Keeping the gas stations stocked

Among the many task forces that were convened after the Hurricane Rita evacuation fiasco was one to deal with the issue of depleted gasoline supplies along evacuation routes. Here’s the report.

Surprisingly, until Rita hit Sabine Pass on Sept. 24, 2005, fuel supply had been omitted not only from the state’s nearly 200-page evacuation plan but from many local ones as well.

“What we know now is there was no fuel plan,” said Jack E. Little, former Shell Oil Co. president and CEO, whom Perry tapped to oversee his Task Force on Evacuation, Transportation and Logistics. “Every company was on their own. The problem arose when the voluntary evacuation was overlaid on top of the mandatory evacuation and the roads were clogged.”


When evacuation discussions finally were held in city halls and among county commissioners courts, gasoline makers found themselves outside with the public. There was no heads-up to prepare gas stations, which were operating like it was any other day in Texas, with underground reserves at a quarter to half-full.

“Rita occurred and there was really no fuel desk,” said Wade Upton, the retired Valero Energy executive credited with crafting the resulting evacuation fuel plan.

Together with [Texas Emergency Management Chief Jack] Colley, Upton and the fuel committee agreed on a series of benchmarks that would activate certain responses.

No longer will gas stations, as they had before, operate with half-full or less storage tanks during an evacuation. Typically, gas stations keep anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 gallons of fuel on hand.

“We didn’t know that before,” Colley said.

Now, when storm winds are five days from Texas’ shore, fuel trucks will be filled and positioned in pre-selected staging areas known only to the industry and the state.

From there, trucks will be directed to gas stations along the coast, particularly those in urban centers such as Houston, where underground tanks will be filled to the 65 percent mark.

When storm winds are two days away, fuel distribution will move from the coastline to stations along the state’s key northern and western evacuation routes.

It’s this key 48- to 72-hour window that Colley thinks will change evacuation for the better.

“It’s absolutely essential to this fuel piece,” he said.

Sheriff’s deputies will escort the fuel trucks, guiding them around evacuation routes so they don’t get stuck in traffic.

Once the storm passes over land, Colley and fuel strategists will concentrate on redirecting distribution in coastal cities, so that when people return to their homes, they can get back to work and those with power outages will have plenty of fuel for generators.

Seems like a reasonable plan – certainly, it’s better than no plan. I think any Rita-sized evacuation is going to severely tax the system no matter what we put in place, but this ought to handle most situations well enough.

The task force thought of some other things, too:

Colley smiles when asked about some of the smaller, more irksome items such as stoplights in small towns on evacuation routes and trains.

Despite the Rita emergency, many smaller towns along evacuation routes kept stoplights timed as if it were just another day, helping slow millions of fleeing motorists to a crawl.

No one even considered asking train companies to delay or reroute their operations.

“You know that train track in Giddings?” he asks, referring to the town that sits on U.S. 290 that all Houstonians must pass when they take the northwest route to Austin.

“There will not be a train going through that town next time. Stoplights in the town will not be on.”

Good to know. Houstonist has more.

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