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Twists of truth fed rumors of gas rations

Published September 15, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - The lines are gone, supplies are back to normal and Tampa Bay is left to wonder:

What sparked Friday's gasoline frenzy?

Colleen Castille, the state official in charge of ensuring an orderly flow of gas after two hurricanes, was among those who wondered.

She did some checking and traced the frenzy to a couple of mom and pop gas stations, a little misunderstanding and the combined power of television, radio and the Internet.

Before long, thousands of people were waiting in line at gas stations around the bay area, convinced that the state was about to ration gas just as Hurricane Ivan had Tampa Bay in its sights.

The uproar began a few days after Gov. Jeb Bush issued an emergency order giving Castille's agency the power to supervise communications among the companies that deliver gasoline and diesel fuel to Florida ports.

Federal antitrust laws prohibit companies from discussing the allocation and distribution of fuel supplies. The governor issued the order after conferring with the U.S. Department of Justice, Castille said.

The emergency order does not give the state the authority to ration gas, and Bush has repeatedly said there are no plans to try rationing.

But the order did make Castille, the state's top environmental official, something of a gas czar, monitoring the arrival of tanker ships at Florida ports and regularly communicating with petroleum companies.

She is the go-between for companies that could otherwise be accused of collusion.

Castille has worked with officials at Florida ports to keep them open longer and make sure tankers with fuel were in line to unload ahead of other vessels.

At each port the tankers unload millions of gallons of fuel every day into tanks and a pipeline. Trucks line up at the ports to fill up and distribute the fuel to stations around the state.

Castille carries around a list of each port and the names of ships expected each day.

The state didn't direct fuel to particular locations, but advised the petroleum companies of shortages and asked some ports to keep landside operations going even if they had to close sea access, Castille said.

Whenever an approaching storm caused one port to close, Castille advised the companies so they could divert ships to another port.

Floridians normally use about 26.5-million gallons of fuel a day, but usage has doubled with so many evacuations and thousands of out-of-state utility trucks and relief workers moving around the state after hurricanes Charley and Frances.

Bush urged Floridians to stay calm and refrain from unnecessary travel or "topping the tank."

But then rumors of rationing spread anyway.

Castille said a Tampa Bay area TV station - she's not sure which one - reported on a couple of small gas stations that posted signs limiting gas sales to $5 a customer.

By the time radio and TV stations tried to knock down the rumor Friday afternoon, it was too late. Lines snaked out of gas stations into the evening, convinced the state would restrict gas sales to 5 gallons per person.

Gas sales tripled after the rumors started and pumps at many gas stations ran dry.

Depleted gas reserves have returned to normal, but demand remains high because of the presence of so many relief workers and yet another evacuation order for Hurricane Ivan, Castille said.

With Ivan now in the Gulf of Mexico, ships headed from New Orleans and Corpus Christi to Tampa have already started out across the gulf and plan to come in behind Ivan, reaching Tampa as the storm moves ashore.

"It really took life in the Tampa Bay area," said Castille, secretary of the Department of Environmental Regulation. "All it took was a picture of one of those signs on a TV station and the rumor lit like a wildfire."

[Last modified September 15, 2004, 01:08:22]

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