JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida is scrambling to keep up with high demand for gas from people fleeing and preparing for the weekend arrival of powerful and deadly Hurricane Irma.
Highway regulations and restrictions have been lifted for fuel truckers, who are receiving law-enforcement escorts. Also, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt on Thursday approved emergency fuel waivers requested by Gov. Rick Scott, who is trying to get more gas quickly into Florida.
"Demand obviously is increasing during this time, so what we're trying to do is make sure on the supply side that we provide more options than what exist," Pruitt said in an interview with The News Service of Florida.
Pruitt said he spoke with Scott several times by telephone Thursday. Scott requested an extension of the waivers, which were approved for Hurricane Harvey and were set to expire on Sept. 15.
"Those waivers will provide certainty and confidence to refiners and to others in the industry that will be of benefit to the citizens of Florida and to the other states affected (by Irma)," Pruitt said.
Scott also wants people, particularly those who intend to ride out the storm at home or in nearby shelters, to be more altruistic and to fill up with only the amounts of gas they may need the next few days.
“What's happening is, people are buying so much gas right now, as soon as you fill up at the retailer, they're buying all the gas before the truck can get back,” Scott said.
Scott also cautioned Floridians not to delay if they are ordered to evacuate or if they have decided to leave home.
“We cannot save you once the storm hits,” Scott said Thursday afternoon at the Jacksonville Emergency Operations Center. “Once there is an evacuation order, get out.”
As of 5 p.m. Thursday, Irma was about 135 miles east of Great Inagua Island, with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, moving west-northwest at 16 miles per hour. Scott warned of life-threatening 5- to 10-foot storm surges in Florida from the Category 5 storm.
“My biggest concern right now is people are not taking seriously enough the risk of storm surge,” Scott said.
Florida received its first storm-surge and hurricane watches on Thursday morning, from the Jupiter Inlet south around the peninsula to Bonita Beach. The hurricane watch -- typically issued 48 hours before tropical-storm force winds arrive -- also includes Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.
A storm-surge watch means life-threatening rising water is likely within 48 hours.
The Florida Keys, where more than 25,000 people hit the road after mandatory evacuations were ordered for tourists and residents, is under both watches.
Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for barrier islands and low-lying mainland areas of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said depending upon the projected path of the storm, evacuation orders may be issued Friday for low-lying areas and mobile homes in Northeast Florida.
For those evacuating: “Go north or west,” Curry said.
“They need to get out Jacksonville,” he added. “They need to get out of the path of the storm.”
Curry worried that some residents might be complacent after Hurricane Matthew last October. That hurricane went up the East Coast but never made landfall in Florida. It left more than 1 million without power, caused serious flooding along the St. Johns River and was blamed for 12 deaths in the state.
“One of the things that we've heard buzzing around here in Jacksonville and the surrounding area is that this is another Matthew,” Curry said. “This is not another Matthew. And to be clear, Matthew inflicted serious damage on our city.”
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Scott activated 3,000 additional members of the Florida National Guard, bringing the number to 4,000. Another 3,000 are expected to be activated by Friday.
Scott also tweeted a photo of a Florida Highway Patrol car traveling behind a tanker truck on an interstate, noting the FHP is escorting “fuel trucks across FL to ensure supplies are quickly refilled.”
Scott added in a release that he's been in contact with federal officials, fuel retailers and oil companies to address the shortages of fuel.
“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,” Scott said. “To further expedite fuel delivery, I have directed state police to escort fuel trucks to gas stations along evacuation routes.”
Regulations related to truck weights and driver restrictions have been waived for fuel trucks.
To help keep gas stations open longer in evacuation zones, Scott added the state's offering to arrange police escorts for station employees.
The Florida Ports Council reported that multiple fuel ships were headed to Port Tampa and JaxPort and were docked at Florida ports.
“Fuel distribution is being expedited at all phases of delivery -- Governor Scott has arranged for military vessels to escort the ships to the docks and law enforcement escort of fuel trucks to stations,” the council said Thursday.