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Irma Cuts Power to 4.7 Million, Shuts Ports, Imperils Crops

Sept. 11, 2017
Ports critical to supplying the state with gasoline and diesel were closed, and energy companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. shut fuel terminals and pipelines.

Hurricane Irma has knocked out power to at least 4.7 million customers, paralyzed tanker traffic and shut about 6,000 gasoline stations. As the storm heads up Florida’s west coast, it’s also threatening more than $1 billion worth of crops.

NextEra Energy Inc.’s Florida Power & Light utility warned Sunday that some customers may go without power for weeks, and parts of its system may need to be rebuilt “from the ground up.” The company took offline one of two reactors at a nuclear plant south of Miami. Ports critical to supplying the state with gasoline and diesel were also closed, and energy companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Kinder Morgan Inc. shut fuel terminals and pipelines.

“Fuel deliveries in Florida are virtually nonexistent,” Mansfield Oil, a Georgia-based energy supplier, said in a report. “Markets will take time to fully recover, particularly if Irma damages fueling infrastructure.”

Irma, now a tropical storm, threatens to sap natural gas demand by cutting use from power plants. The hurricane may also wreak havoc on Florida’s farmlands, menacing $1.2 billion worth of production in the top U.S. grower of fresh tomatoes, oranges, green beans, cucumbers, squash and sugar cane.

Citrus production is the most vulnerable of crops as Irma moves north along Florida’s west coast, said Paul Markert, a meteorologist at MDA Weather Services in Gaithersburg, Md. About 25% of the crop may be lost.

Florida’s orange, grapefruit and other citrus trees are full of developing fruit that Irma may blow away. Winds could also destroy the trees themselves in a region that accounts for almost 10% of the nation’s fruit and vegetable farmland. Orange-juice futures and domestic sugar prices rallied last week as Irma drew closer.

Meanwhile, ports and terminals including Miami, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Port Everglades and Jacksonville were closed to traffic. Florida, which depends wholly on pipelines and tankers for fuel supplies, was already facing fuel challenges after Hurricane Harvey knocked offline refining capacity in the Gulf Coast.

Kinder Morgan shut a pipeline system that carries gasoline, ethanol, diesel and jet fuel to land-locked Orlando from Tampa; all of its fuel terminals in Florida; and the Elba Island liquefied natural gas plant in Georgia.

Florida Power & Light said in a press conference broadcast online Sunday that restoring electricity will be “one of the most complex” endeavors the utility’s ever faced. The feed to the broadcast itself cut out for several minutes due to a power failure.

“Unfortunately, we are not immune to Irma’s wrath," Rob Gould, a spokesman for the utility, said after the feed for the webcast had been restored.

Other storm-related impacts:

  • About 42% of Florida’s retail gasoline stations had run out of fuel as of 1:45 p.m. local time Sunday, said  Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst at In Georgia, 14% of stations didn’t have gasoline.
  • Mosaic Co. shut phosphate mines in central Florida, and wheat miller Ardent Mills closed operations in Tampa.
  • The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said information on crop damage wasn’t yet available.
  • Southern’s Vogtle and Hatch nuclear power plants in Georgia remained online. Enbridge Inc. said its Sabal Trail pipeline, which supplies natural gas to Florida, is still delivering.
  • Duke Energy Corp., which also runs a utility in Florida, estimated that more than 1 million of its customers may lose power and restoring service could take a week or longer.
  • Sanderson Farms halted operations at its chicken-processing plant in Moultrie, Ga., and will decide by Monday afternoon whether to restart operations Tuesday.

By Mark Chediak, Brian K. Sullivan and Megan Durisin

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