Central Florida gas stations' hurricane preparedness questionable

Station owners say upgrades frustrating, waste of money, don't protect public

By Erik von Ancken - Anchor/Reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. - Charley. Frances. Jeanne. For most of us those names bring back bad memories. Blue tarps, sweltering days, and long, hot, frustrating lines at the gas station.

That summer of 2004, people waited hours to fill up if they could even find a station that was open.

Since then, lawmakers passed a law requiring gas stations to be ready for a storm.

[MAP: Gas stations the state requires work without electricity]

But in an exclusive investigation, Local 6 uncovered why we may not be any better off than we were in 2004.

Gas pumps cannot run without electricity, so state lawmakers came up with a solution: make sure the pumps can be powered externally.

The law took effect in 2007 and requires anyone who builds a new gas station in Florida to install a transfer switch. The device allows the station to switch to an outside source of electricity, like a generator, in case of an outage.

Amin Gulamali, who owns the Shell at 846 Kirkman Road in Orlando, said the electrical equipment and installation cost him $25,000.

"It allows us to operate the gasoline unit, the dispensing unit, the registers, and I think they have connected the walk-in cooler also. If you plug in a generator to this box," he said.

And it's not just new gas stations that need a transfer switch. Old stations within a half-mile of an evacuation route are also required to install one.

Local 6 obtained statistics from the Florida Department of Agriculture. In Orange County, 70 gas stations are now generator-ready out of all 512 stations county-wide. That means only 14 percent of all pumps in Orange County can be connected to a generator.

Other counties:
Seminole - 9%
Osceola – 33%
Lake - 28%
Brevard – 14%
Flagler – 59%
Volusia – 8%

"That's not good. That's long lines, lots of people trying to get out of town, no way to get out, and not enough gas," said Mark Duart, who vividly remembers the 2004 hurricane season.

But there's a bigger problem with the lawmakers' solution.

Local 6 could find only one permanent generator in Volusia County at the Love's truck stop off I-95 in Ormond Beach. Manager Bill Volage said Love's is a primary filling station for utility trucks and first responder vehicles.

Local 6 checked with Orange County, where emergency managers say as far they know, none of the gas stations have generators.

Gas station owners said it's like having a plug without an outlet.

"This does nothing without a generator?" Local 6 asked Gulamali.

"You're absolutely right," said Gulamali. "And you don't have any generators? I don't have any generators. You haven't bought any, you're not storing them somewhere? The law says we don't have to have a generator, all we have to have is a transfer switch."

Gulamali said he has no plans to buy one even if he can find one after a storm. He said he's staying home and won't force his staff to go to work either. Gulamali said it's not worth the risk.

"Mostly I feel this is a waste of money for the small business owners. To spend $25,000, I could have used that money somewhere else. It's just a piece of equipment that will never be used," he said.

Gulamali said he hasn't used his transfer switch in the 7 years that his Shell has been open. If he had to, he said he wouldn't know how, and claims to hook up a generator he'd have to call in an electrician-- if he could find one after a storm.

"If there's a storm, what does the public get out this?" Local 6 asked Gulamali.

"I don't think anything. Because if I don't have a generator, I cannot even use it," he replied.

The Department of Agriculture is tasked with enforcing the transfer switch law. Press Secretary Erin Gillespie told Local 6 that all stations required to comply are in compliance.

Gillespie said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam would not be available for comment and instead suggested Local 6 contact "local legislators or your local emergency management, who might be able to speak better to the topic."

Local emergency management also declined to go on camera with Local 6, instead emailing the following statement:

"Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has statutory responsibilities related to commercial dispensing systems and implementation (and enforcement) of the standby electric system statutes. Department of Environmental Protection separately has duties related to fuel storage tanks. Only DACS and DEP can provide the most current info as they routinely perform their required fuel facility inspections.

Also note that DACS and DEP field staff indicate that very few fuel stations have permanently installed gensets. The statute only requires installation of genset prewire standby system. The fuel station owner/operator is responsible for providing a genset when needed.

This is not an issue that DEM has authority so I would recommend the EM Directors let the reporter know to contact DACS or DEP."

Local 6 reached out to Congressman Bill Posey and Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who both helped craft the legislation, but did not receive a response.

Former Congresswoman and State Representative Sandy Adams, who also helped write the law, did agree to go on camera.

"Where are they going to get a generator after a storm hits?" Local 6 asked Adams.

"Well I would hope they would reconsider their thought process on that," Adams replied.

Adams said instead of buying a generator, gas stations could contract with a company that would deliver one after a storm.

"If there's no damage and the only thing that's there is no power, and they have the ability to hook up that generator and pour that fuel out, think about the generators that could run off that fuel. That could be life-saving," said Adams.

Adams believes it's a station owner's moral responsibility to open and sell gas after a hurricane, if it's safe to do so.

"It's not one of those things where we're requiring them to take chances to go back to open up, but if they can open up, and they have the ability to pull that fuel out, and help the people in the community on the recovery end, I think that's very important," said Adams. "You have the ability to help your community, wouldn't you want to?"

Owners with more than 10 gas stations are required by law to have access to a generator, but this doesn't apply to individually owned gas stations, Gulamali's.

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