Gustav Draws Attention to Fla. Generator Law

Power outages caused by Hurricane Gustav have shut down gas stations throughout Louisiana this week, but Florida officials are hoping a little-known state law can help them avoid the same complication the next time a major storm reaches their shores - which could be this weekend.

The Sunshine State in 2006 approved a law - believed to be the only one of its kind - that requires nearly 1,000 gas stations along interstate highways and other major evacuation routes in the state to install wiring allowing them to use backup power sources to pump gas during emergencies.

The law, which also requires the stations to have generators on hand or available within 24 hours of an emergency, is meant to ensure that gas stations can stay open if hurricanes or other disasters knock out electricity, allowing residents to evacuate the state and return home more smoothly.

In Louisiana this week, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) identified a lack of power at gas stations across much of the state as one of the fundamental problems awaiting an estimated 1.9 million residents who fled ahead of Gustav's landfall. The evacuation is being called the largest in state history.

On Thursday (Sept. 4), Jindal announced that the state would spend about $20 million to purchase 400 generators to restore power at gas stations, grocery stores and pharmacies, as hundreds of thousands of evacuees return, including many from neighboring states.

Florida 's law, signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in the wake of a series of major hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, could face its first major test as early as Saturday (Sept. 6), when Tropical Storm Hanna could make landfall there. Forecasters have cautioned that Hanna could gain strength and turn into a hurricane before reaching land, and they note that two more named storms - Ike and Josephine - also are stirring over the Atlantic Ocean and threaten Florida in the coming days.

Of the 970 gas stations that Florida officials have identified as falling under the generator law, almost all have complied with its demands, said Terence McElroy, a spokesman with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which inspected the stations. Gas stations that fail to comply could be shut down, and owners could face fines or even criminal charges.

"We found their compliance and cooperation very encouraging," McElroy said of gas station owners and managers, noting that many in the business community agree that the law serves an important public-safety purpose.

But the law also carries significant costs for business owners, who have had to install "transfer switches" that are necessary for generators to power their gas stations - in addition to buying the generators themselves. More importantly, many owners complain, the law's success largely depends on other factors during emergencies.

David Whitaker, general manager of the Flying J Travel Plaza off Interstate 95 in Fort Piece , Fla. , said his company paid about $400,000 for a generator and $33,000 for the installation of a transfer switch to comply with the law. Even with those expenses, Whitaker said, there is no guarantee he will be able to open the travel plaza the next time a hurricane or other disaster hits the region.

"This is a giant truck stop, which means that it requires a minimum of 15 to 20 employees to run it," Whitaker said in an interview with Stateline.org . The generator, he said, will be useless if he cannot find workers willing to stay behind during a storm, noting that the state cannot force him to keep his gas station open.

"It's a wonderful idea as long as I have enough brave souls to operate the plaza," he said.

Others have cautioned that fuel shortages during disasters are not caused simply by a lack of electricity at gas stations, but by an inability of suppliers to reach the stations to deliver the gas. Many gas stations in Louisiana this week have reported supply problems in addition to a lack of generators.

The law is not perfect, acknowledged Florida state Rep. Sandy Adams (R), chair of the House Domestic Security Committee, where the generator legislation originated two years ago. But she said lawmakers have learned from each storm that has hit Florida and continue to refine their approaches to make the state more prepared for the next emergency.

"It's a lessons-learned approach," she said.

McElroy, of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, predicted that the law will prove useful. He said that residents who returned to Florida after the hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 "found areas, days later, that were without power and they couldn't fill their cars. I don't think they'll find that again."