Hurricane Irma lays waste to all in its path as it heads up Florida’s west coast
San Francisco/Boston/Chicago — Hurricane Irma has knocked out power to at least 4.5-million customers, paralysed tanker traffic and shut about 6,000 petrol stations. As the storm heads up Florida’s west coast, it is also threatening more than $1bn worth of crops.
NextEra Energy’s Florida Power & Light utility warned on 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 petrol and diesel were also closed, and energy companies including Exxon Mobil and Kinder Morgan 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 fuelling infrastructure."
Irma, now a Category 2 storm forecast to rake all of Florida’s west coast, threatens to sap natural gas demand by cutting use from power plants, and will weigh on oil and refined products prices by blocking shipments to the nation’s third-largest gasoline market. The hurricane may also wreak havoc on Florida’s farmlands, menacing $1.2bn worth of production in the top US 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, Maryland. 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 petrol, 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 on Sunday that restoring electricity would be "one of the most complex" endeavours the utility’s had 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.