Hurricane Harvey: As motorists panicked, energy industry scrambled to meet demand

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As panicked motorists streamed toward gas pumps, draining them dry and sparking even more hysteria that Texas’ fuel supply had fallen victim to Hurricane Harvey, an army of refinery workers and tanker-truck drivers mobilized in a frantic effort to restock the lifeblood of modern transportation.

And for the better part of three days while the Gulf Coast was still reeling from the onslaught of wind and water, it remained an open question for both the producers and the consumers of motor fuel when the lines of supply and demand would once again intersect.

“Not only were there long lines at those few retail outlets that did have gas, there were also long lines at the terminals where the gasoline tankers were filling up so they could get out there to restock the stores,” said Scott Fisher, vice president for public affairs for the Texas Food and Fuel Association.

“The difference is, it takes a matter of minutes to fill the tank of Ford F-150,” he added, “but it takes an hour and a half during normal times to fill a tanker. But with the long lines we were facing, it was taking 10 hours to get one load of fuel on the road.”

The panic in such metropolitan areas as San Antonio, Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth took hold nearly a week after Harvey first slammed the Coastal Bend as a Category 4 storm and four days after button-hooked to the northeast and drenched Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur with some of the worst flooding in the region’s history.

The relentless storm and the massive power outages that followed in its wake shuttered refineries up and down the Texas coast, meaning that fully one-third of the nation’s massive plants that turn crude oil into motor fuel was knocked offline. Many refineries remained out of commission for as long as 10 days and a handful of others were still not fully functional as of late last week. Three remained offline.

John Velasquez, who works at the Citgo refinery and is president of the United Steelworkers union in Corpus Christi, said some workers had to juggle the dual task of making their homes inhabitable again while helping to jump start a key component of the national economy.

“Quite a few of our people live in the area impacted worst — Rockport and Aransas Pass,” said Velasquez, whose local union represents about 250 Corpus Christi refinery workers. “For them, it’s been especially tough.”