Port officials prepare state's 'fuel gateway' for hurricane season

- Less than a year after Hurricane Irma devastated parts of Florida, the hurricane season is back again.

As homeowners and businesses get their hurricane plans in place, the same can be said for Port Tampa Bay, a place that port officials call the "fuel gateway" for the state.

Port Tampa Bay supplies more than 40 percent of the fuel coming into Florida so it needs to be ready to prevent shortages before, during, and after a storm.

Its value became clearer than ever last September. More than a third of the state was ordered to evacuate in anticipation of Irma, which meant hundreds of thousands of residents loaded up their cars and filled up their tanks to drive to safety.

The mass exodus drained gas stations across the Bay Area.

Ahead of Irma, the Coast Guard shut down the channel leading to the port, and fuel vessels were sent out to sea to ride out the storm safely.

"Irma was a worst-case scenario," said Port Tampa President Paul Anderson. "Due to good fortune and, I think, some luck, we avoided a really catastrophic event here."

Irma dropped from a Category 5 to a Category 1 hurricane by the time it blew over the Bay Area, allowing the port to get back to regular operations within one day of the storm's departure.

Officials wasted no time getting fuel trucks refilled and back on the road.

"Governor Rick Scott made sure that we had Florida Highway Patrol escorts," said Anderson.

Anderson says the port is working with nearly 30 agencies to create a game plan for any major weather-related events to come.  

This is a yearly process. The port decides how it will establish and maintain communication with agencies like the Coast Guard, Homeland Security, and oil companies during emergencies.

Officials figure out how to move quickly to protect the port and ships if a hurricane were to hit the area.

Anderson said keeping the port open is a team effort and it is critical to the entire state.

"Power plants need fuel for electricity, school buses need fuel for their bus fleets. Virtually, our economy is dependent upon this port getting fuel back into the system," explained Anderson.

Anderson said, like any resident, the port can't anticipate what the 2018 hurricane season will bring, so officials are preparing for the very worst, however, they're hoping for the best.

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