House eyes rail cars to provide fuel aid

By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The state would study the possibility of rushing fully loaded rail-tank cars into evacuation areas to avoid a repeat of the run on gas stations that occurred before Hurricane Irma made landfall last year, under a bill that moved forward Thursday in the House.

The House Appropriations Committee unanimously backed the bill (HB 7083), which features a number of the 78 recommendations that came out of a select committee on hurricanes in January. It includes a directive to the Department of Transportation to determine if tank cars could be used to bring fuel to areas threatened or damaged by storms.

“The study must address the use of tank cars and mobile fuel transfer systems as temporary storage and dispensing facilities for motor vehicle fuel before, during, and after a hurricane,” the proposal says.

The study, which would require consultation with the rail and fuel industries, would have to be submitted by July 1, the start of next fiscal year.

The state strained to keep up with fuel demand in September as Irma raced through the Caribbean and 6.5 million Floridians were ordered to evacuate their homes, with others scrambling for last-minute storm supplies.

Motorists reported it took up to 12 hours to traverse routes typically covered in half that time. As ports closed, the Florida Highway Patrol escorted tanker trucks south on highways.

The Senate has started moving forward with a measure (SB 700) that would set up the Florida Strategic Fuel Reserve Task Force within the Division of Emergency Management. The task force would recommend a strategic fuel reserve plan intended to meet public and private needs during emergencies and disasters.

House sponsor Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, said the House bill, which was quickly approved by the committee, does a number of “very good things.”

The measure also includes requiring each county emergency management agency to set up their own fuel contingency plans; allowing money from the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund to be used for local projects that enhance emergency power generation; and requiring the Division of Emergency Management to use certified sign-language interpreters during televised broadcasts as weather emergencies unfold.

The sign language change is in part due to Manatee County’s use of a last-minute interpreter --- a lifeguard who has a deaf brother --- to convey disaster planning. The results were garbled communications, such as when instructions were given on pet evacuations, the message was “dog cat.”

On Feb. 2, Scott directed the transportation department to expand “emergency shoulder use” along key interstates, a strategy employed in September as traffic backed up with motorists fleeing Irma north on Interstate 75.

A House select committee recommendation favored tests of converting portions of highways into all one-way traffic, a process known as “contraflow.”

Scott has also called for installing cameras and message signs along I-75 from Ocala north to the Georgia state line and increasing the capacity of the state’s Florida 511 system, which provides real-time traffic information about major roads.

Also, by July the department is expected to identify areas along key evacuation routes where more fuel services are needed and to look at ways to expand fuel capacity for first responders.

News Service of Florida