Florida Scrambles for Fuel Shipments as Irma Approaches

White House issues Jones Act waiver for foreign-flagged product tankers

Hurricane Andrew, 1992 (left); Hurricane Irma, 2017 (right)

By The Maritime Executive 09-08-2017 09:57:00

Federal and state authorities are working around the clock to prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Irma, a dangerous Category 4 storm that is expected to make landfall in the Florida Keys on Sunday morning. The storm is similar in strength to Hurricane Andrew, the powerful cyclone that struck Florida in 1992, but it covers a much wider area. 

Multiple counties have evacuation orders in place for coastal and low-lying areas, which would be vulnerable to a “life-threatening” storm surge. The departure of hundreds of thousands of people has strained Florida's gas distribution network, and state authorities are scrambling to address shortages that threaten to impede the evacuation effort. FEMA called on residents to take only as much fuel as they need to reach their destination, and the governor is working with distributors to find out how to bring in more supplies. The governor has also directed state police to escort fuel trucks to gas stations along evacuation routes, and he called on stations to stay open as long as possible so that residents can fuel up and get out. 

The state lacks its own refineries, and it imports most of its fuel from Gulf Coast and East Coast refiners by sea. "We have asked fuel companies to identify ships that are in route to our ports so we can arrange military escorts to get them here faster," Governor Rick Scott said in a statement Friday. "Currently, there is a fuel ship in route from a refinery in Mississippi to the Port of Tampa for resupply."

The Trump administration has also issued an emergency Jones Act waiver, which will allow foreign-flagged tankers to help meet the emergency demand for coastwise transport of gas and diesel. “So as many ships as possible are now being brought to bear . . . to bring as much fuel as possible [into Florida],” said homeland security adviser Tom Bossert in a press briefing. 

Governor Scott said that all Florida ports are operational and prioritizing fuel shipments, but some of the biggest petroleum ports in the state – Port Canaveral and Port Everglades – are already under USCG port condition Yankee, and inbound traffic at these facilities is prohibited. All in-port vessel movements and cargo operations are also banned without USCG authorization. In accordance with the directive, Port Canaveral said that it would cease all operations at 1500 hours Friday, and the Canaveral Lock will be closed. A spokeswoman for Port Everglades said that one product tanker was unloading Thursday night, and all merchant vessels were expected to leave port by Friday morning.