Long lines of motorists snake through New Jersey shore communities still buried under the sand tossed inland by Superstorm Sandy. The scene repeats itself in New York City and its suburbs, and up along the storm-ravaged coast. Even as the Northeast digs out from under the devastation, frustrations continue to mount over gasoline shortages that have left many motorists unable to fill up.
The problem isn’t a lack of gasoline but the power to run pumps. Experts say there may actually now be an oversupply of fuel on ships sitting in New York Harbor and at refineries like those in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The events of last week underscore the potential problem Americans face after a major disaster, whether it be a superstorm, an earthquake, a tsunami or a terrorist attack that guts a region’s infrastructure. Motorists, whatever they drive, are particularly vulnerable to the loss of electricity that can shut down filling stations all over a crowded region like New York – or Chicago, Washington, or Los Angeles, for that matter.
“The problem will go away when the power is restored, and it won’t go away if it’s not,” Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service told the Associated Press.
Much of the region struck by Superstorm Sandy has already gotten back to a semblance of normality – meaning at least the electricity is back. At its peak, about 8.5 million customers were without power last week, according to authorities. About 75% of those back on the grid, with the utility Public Service Electric and Gas reporting that all major refineries, notably including Exxon and Hess facilities in Elizabeth, are powered up.
Some areas remain harder hit than others, however, particularly parts of the Jersey Shore and the New York City borough of Staten Island, and could go days, perhaps weeks more without electricity.
In the meantime, NJ Governor Chris Christie has instituted alternate-day rationing determined by the last number on a motorist’s license plate.
Motorists who might already have run out of fuel will at least be able to resort to jerry cans to get a couple gallons – enough, perhaps, to make it to the nearest working pump.
But the superstorm raises concerns about the limits of electric vehicles in emergencies like the one that devastated the coast last week.
Most battery cars on the market today can run less than 100 miles — on a full charge. Considering the massive size of Superstorm Sandy, whose wrath was felt along an estimated 800 miles of coastline, that would barely be enough to get out of harm’s way, though more than enough to at least get waterfront residents to higher ground.
In the aftermath, battery cars are potentially even more vulnerable in that there are relatively few public charging facilities, especially those offering higher voltage capabilities for quick charging. In many cases, owners would have to find a working 110-volt outlet and wait as much as a full day to get another 100 miles of range.
And there’s no jerry can alternative for a battery car that has run out of juice on the side of a highway.
On the other hand, at least a working outlet would help, while motorists driving internal combustion vehicles have to find a service station.
Until a large network of public charging stations becomes widely available, electric vehicles could be particularly vulnerable during natural or man-made disasters. But as the lines snaking up to East Coast gas stations demonstrate, motorists may have problems whatever they’re driving.