CHICAGO -- A flurry of fuel shortages in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico after this active hurricane season demonstrated again the fragility of energy infrastructure—and the critical role that gasoline and diesel play in people’s lives. Behind the scenes, a nonprofit organization has been working hard to ease the shortages and supply fuel to those who need it most.
Fuel Relief Fund (FRF) was founded by Ted Honcharik, CEO of Pacific Tank Lines Inc., Riverside, Calif., after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. The group of volunteer fuel distributors travel to disaster zones worldwide to provide free fuel to first responders and residents. Since then, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit group has deployed more than a dozen times.
“In a disaster, we believe fuel is the most important thing,” Jimm Cross, co-owner of Cross Petroleum, Redding, Calif., and an executive board member of FRF, told CSP Fuels. Cross participated in his first deployment this year, helping deliver and distribute fuel to victims of Hurricane Irma in Florida. It’s a particularly skilled group of volunteers, he said.
“That’s the unique thing about our organization; we’re all petroleum guys,” said Cross. “We operate trucks, gas stations, bulk plants, so we know how to get stuff out of the ground, out of the tank. We can turn a water truck into a fuel truck if we have to.”
Here are a few examples of the work FRF has done to help communities fuel up and recover ...
FRF purchases fuel locally and works with local authorities to determine which places are most in need. “If fuel is readily available within 5 to 10 miles, we don’t respond to that because it’s not an urgent need,” said Cross. “But if it’s an hour or more, that’s the kind of areas we want to respond to.”
Typically, FRF is distributing fuel in 5- to 10-gallon quantities—directly into vehicles or fuel containers.
“So with 5 to 10 gallons per person, multiply it out—for every one person you help out, it’s probably helping four to five family members,” said Cross. “The nice thing is we can reach a lot of people pretty quickly to give them help.”
FRF arranged for three trucks to distribute fuel to first responders and residents in Texas following Hurricane Harvey. On one day after the storm struck in late August, the group handed out more than 2,000 gallons of gasoline and 500 gallons of diesel to fill up vehicles, and dispensed even more to help power generators.
To help out after Hurricane Irma slammed Florida in August, Cross and his fellow FRF volunteers from Amber Resources, DC Logistics and Pacific Tank Lines—along with two Boston firefighters—flew into Gulfport, Miss., and then drove more than 700 miles to guide a fuel truck to Naples, Fla. The team was buffeted at times by 60- to 70-mile-per-hour winds.
“The first thing we do when we get there is look for where is the control center, office of emergency services, the mayor, whoever the local authorities are, and ask them, where’s the biggest need?” said Cross. In the case of Naples, local authorities directed the crew to a community center in an economically depressed part of the county. The team gave away about 8,000 gallons of gasoline two days.
After that, the crew was directed to the Florida Keys. “During that time, we had to figure out how to procure more fuel, so two of us spent the whole day making contacts with local distributors,” said Cross. They were able to secure and then distribute two truckloads of fuel to the Keys; the effort was reported on by NBC News.
The trip had a big effect on Cross. “I’d never been to a hurricane or disaster zone. It was unbelievable the amount of damage—literally like a bomb went off,” he said.
“People were really grateful,” he added. This includes one man who tried to ride out the storm on his boat. The boat sunk, and he was forced to swim to shore.
“There were multiple people we talked to with stories like that,” said Cross. “They weren’t going to leave; they were survivors and were going to rebuild.”
After Puerto Rico was devastated by two hurricanes in the span of a week in September, FRF arrived to help alleviate the island’s crippling fuel shortages.
The team delivered more than 18,000 liters of gasoline in the cities of Ciales and Barranquitas over two days, and also visited the nearby island of Vieques to deliver fuel there. Honcharik reported from Puerto Rico one day in October on the destruction he found.
“The people are really starting to feel the pain of no electricity,” he said in a Facebook post. “Most have no way of keeping food cold. Ice is sold out within 20 minutes. Most stores only allow a person to buy a few bottles of water. If they were able to buy a case, the store would be out of water in minutes.”
The need for fuel has been so great that Global Giving, a crowdfunding site for charities, gave FRF a $50,000 grant to help support its work in Puerto Rico.
FRF also distributes fuel after international disasters, including in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew, in Turkey and Japan after their 2011 earthquakes, in the Philippines after 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan and in Nepal after its 2015 earthquake.
The group is partners with the United Nations (UN). “When we deploy internationally, a lot of times, we’re going into the disaster zone with the UN, flying our people in, or they’re assisting us to get transportation and helping us procure fuel,” said Cross. FRF supplies not only residents but also the Red Cross, World Health Organization and nongovernmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, so that they can set up temporary medical clinics and supply food, water and light.
“Without diesel or gas to run the generators, there’s no fresh water, no refrigeration, no security because there’s no lights,” said Cross.
Sometimes FRF distributes energy sources other than gasoline and diesel. For example, in Turkey, it distributed coal; in Japan, it supplied kerosene; and in the Philippines, it passed out 15-gallon bottles of propane.
FRF’s main fundraising vehicle is its annual golf tournament. Beyond this, it holds events throughout the year, such as its “Gas Fisherman” fundraiser, and submits projects for the charity crowdfunding site Global Giving.
That said, 2017’s string of natural disasters—led by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Rita—has been rough on FRF’s resources. “We’re trying to build our reserves up,” said Cross. “We would love to have $1 million and be able to respond anytime there’s a disaster.”
For more information about FRF or to become a member, volunteer or donate money, visit its website, www.fuelrelieffund.org.