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PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. -- More gas station owners and operators need to be better-prepared to deal with the aftermath of a storm like Hurricane Wilma, when long lines of motorists coming to fill their tanks were met with closed stations, or rationed fuel at open locations, according to a recent Florida state report.
The March 1 report stated that of the 399 gas stations in Palm Beach County, only 48 have generators -- and of those, 44 are in working order. Another 161 stations stated they can secure a portable generator within 24 hours, but only 143 are equipped with a transfer switch to run the emergency power equipment, according to the Palm Beach Post.
Last week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist responded to this issue by sending letters to the 254 larger filling stations in the state within a half-mile of evacuation routes, informing them of the new law in effect June 1, requiring them to be generator-friendly. Only 45 percent have complied, Crist told the Post.
"This is a health, safety and welfare issue," he said. "It's important to be prepared for an emergency."
State inspectors will report violators to local state attorney offices. The offense is a second-degree misdemeanor, and offenders will get a $500 fine.
Even if more stations are generator-ready, there still could be a drastic fuel shortage after a storm.
Panic buying and evacuations may leave very little fuel in stations' underground tanks. It can be a day or two before tanker trucks can begin delivering fuel to replenish supplies, said Jim Smith, CEO of the Tallahassee-based Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. And stations with generators may not be able to operate if they're damaged by flying debris, said John Tatum, program manager for the Palm Beach County Division of Emergency Management.
About 5,300 of Florida's roughly 9,600 gas stations are independently owned or run by small retail chains. Smith estimated that maybe as many as 80 percent will be prepared for hurricane season.
"They're doing it because it makes good business sense," Smith told the Post. "They're not going to allow the guy across the street to get all the business."
Most station owners who belong to the Florida Petroleum marketers group will be willing to share, Smith said. Stations in other parts of the state are set to send generators where needed until an emergency passes.
Corporate-owned stations are doing their part by storing generators in secure spots that would be moved quickly to storm-ravaged areas. Earlier this year, ExxonMobil met with station operators in South Florida and selected 30 where transfer switches were installed, said Kalpesh Patel, who runs an ExxonMobil station -- equipped with an 80,000-watt generator -- in Boca Raton, Fla. Company officials said generator-friendly stations will have their tanks topped off right before a storm hits to they'll be prepared afterward.
Along Florida's Turnpike -- a main evacuation route -- 200,000-watt standby generators have been installed at every service plaza, spokeswoman Sonyha Rodriguez-Miller said. The diesel-fueled generators provide full power to keep gas pumps, restaurants and restrooms in operation.
"These really allow us to continue operating and keep everything moving," Rodriguez-Miller told the Post. "That's a real big plus for everyone."
H.J. Frank, an owner of a Boca Raton, Fla.-based generator company, said there's no excuse for stations to be unprepared. He told the paper he sent out brochures in October to 1,200 stations in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties about the new generator law. He has only gotten a handful of inquiries in the past couple of weeks.
"It's not just about evacuating people," he said to the Post. "It's what they come back to afterward for the next five to seven days."