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An exasperating hunt for gasoline as Hurricane Irma's evacuees scramble to come home

Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The drive from Naples to Gainesville was 288 miles of gut-wrenching anxiety, and not because of destruction from the massive hurricane that tore through the day before.

Along that entire stretch of Interstate 75 -- four hours from far southwest Florida to nearly the top of the state -- there was hardly a functioning gas pump to be found.

Mile after mile, motorists were exiting the freeway on fumes and encountering the same sorry sight: empty gas pumps covered with yellow bags, or even worse, wrapped in the dreaded shrink wrap.

"We are just trying to get back," said Rachel Monteagudo, who was hauling an oversized camper from Georgia back to Fort Lauderdale after fleeing the storm -- but hadn't seen any gas since she'd crossed the state line.

Hurricane Irma threw Florida into an epic gas crisis, turning the minor chore of filling up into what could feel like a fool's errand. With ships unable to make deliveries through the storm and power outages forcing stations to close, up to 40 percent of the gas stations in the state were unable to provide fuel Tuesday, the online source GasBuddy reported.

As hundreds of thousands of evacuated Floridians motor back toward homes in areas ravaged by the hurricane, the hunt for gas has become a communal obsession.

People loiter at empty gas stations in the hope the situation might change. A car drives into an empty station and parks; soon a dozen more cars pile in, thinking the driver knew something they didn't.

This happened at a Thornton's filling station north of Tampa. An empty parking lot quickly came alive with chattering motorists hoping for gas. One motorist started pouring gas into her tank from big plastic containers. Nearby, a man had been snoozing in a jalopy he had aspirationally parked alongside a shuttered pump. Now he got out and approached the woman, wanting to know where she'd gotten the gas.

It turned out it had been pumped days before, at a station hundreds of miles away.

Some state ports where gas normally gets distributed are just now reopening. Regular gas refineries and supply lines disrupted by the wreckage Hurricane Harvey wrought last month in Texas are still recovering. And gas trucks were blocked for days making their way down the Florida coast as Irma passed through.

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