In the wake of the devastating flooding and wind damage from hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the fall of 2017, contractors in the South had two urgent needs: helping clients repair ruined homes and getting job sites back up and running.

That meant restoring power was paramount. Yet contractors faced widespread gasoline and diesel fuel shortages and electricity outages. So, they turned to propane as a reliable, readily available and easily transportable fuel to help them quickly address the needs of their customers, their employees, and their own businesses.

Getting to the site

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida, gas pumps weren’t working and at some stations there was no gas to be had anyway. That didn’t stop Universal Engineering Sciences (UES), in Orlando, from getting to its residential and commercial construction sites. Its fleet of 120 trucks runs on propane autogas. Each truck has two tanks, with propane as the primary fuel and gasoline as a backup. The company has a propane tank at its offices for easy refueling.

“We use propane because it’s cheaper than [gasoline], emits less carbon, and it’s a domestic product,” says Mark Israel, UES president. “We weren’t even thinking about the advantages in a hurricane.”

Many builders in Houston already use autogas to help improve air quality in the region. “Houston has to do certain things to get into attainment,” says Jackie Mason, education and marketing director for the Propane Council of Texas, located in Austin. “Using autogas instead of gasoline or diesel is something fleets can do to lower emissions, and because propane is cleaner burning, the engine lasts longer.”

After Harvey, with Houston’s transportation infrastructure disrupted due to flooded roads and widespread power outages, and fuel shortages rampant, the already-common autogas helped contractors assist clients.

“One of the reasons propane comes to the rescue after a big storm [in the Gulf region] is that refined fuels become scarce because the refineries are down and everything is allocated to first responders,” says Harris Baker, vice president of business development at Pinnacle Propane, which has locations throughout Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Missouri. “Months later, we are still experiencing a shortage of [gasoline] and diesel.”

Addressing the damage

In Harvey’s aftermath, builders and remodelers worked around the clock using portable, often propane-fueled equipment — including dehumidifiers, high-wattage security lighting, and forced-air heaters — to dry out damaged buildings before insurance assessments and repairs could begin.

“Restoration equipment can dry out anything from a section of carpet from a roof leak to an entire flooded floor,” Baker says. “Forced-air heaters vary in the amount of BTUs. You can rent massive systems to do several floors at a time using bulk propane going to individual heating units.”

In the suburbs of Orlando, Legacy Custom Built Homes was racing to finish the 2018 New American Home— a livable show home created each year to display new residential design ideas — as Hurricane Irma closed in. Legacy executive vice president John Kolb’s crew scrambled to remove materials from the roofs that were awaiting installation, board up windows, empty dumpsters, and tie down the portable toilets. Luckily, it’s common for propane tanks in the area to be buried, he says, and utility-pole power on the site was restored quickly following the storm.

Preparing for the next storm

Builders and homeowners who store propane on-site should take precautions to fill and strap down the tanks before an approaching storm.

In vulnerable coastal areas, tie-downs are typically regulated. For example, in Shallotte, North Carolina, an hour’s drive north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, if an inspector can see water — either the ocean or the Intracoastal Waterway — the tanks must be anchored, says Robby White, president of Shallotte-based R.D. White and Sons, which specializes in propane tank and appliance delivery and installation.

Underground tanks must be secured in some areas, says Matthew Brown, general manager at Palmetto Gas, which supplies rough-in propane lines and tanks for new homes, making propane even safer. Those areas include Hilton Head Island and nearby Bluffton, South Carolina, where several new homes are currently being built.

The effects of earlier hurricanes, such as Hurricane Matthew in 2016, had contractors and propane suppliers in the Southeast well prepared ahead of this season’s storms, ensuring job sites were battened down and even underground tanks secured. That required them to be ready for the worst, despite a direct hit being unlikely.

“Even when a storm is coming this way, the Gulf Stream [often] puts it into North Carolina,” Brown said. “Most of the time, people don’t even evacuate. Then [Hurricane Matthew] hit us direct, so we are being more prepared.”

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Cheryl Weber

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