Floridians are still feeling the impact of Hurricane Irma. The lack of fuel around much of the state may be one of the greatest challenges they face. Gas stations all over the Naples area were boarded up as of late Tuesday. The rare few that actually had gas also had lines stretching hundreds of cars. And not everybody was a winner in what felt like the fill-up lottery.
We drove for miles looking for open stations. Rumors ran rampant. Maybe the Chevron down by the golf course was open. Someone thought they saw the Shell on Immokalee near I-75 taking down its shutters. At the newly opened Publix, a lady outside told us a Wawa about 15 minutes away had gas. So, off we went. After waiting in a 45 minute line, the station had torn through its supply, leaving dozens of cars out of luck - including us.
Running low on fuel, and anticipating a 100 mile drive back to the eastern coast of Florida, we were desperate. We were staying at a friend's house. They had a classic 1976 Mercedes and generously offered to let us siphon gas from the vehicle. Photographer Alex Brauer played MacGyver, assembling a makeshift kit to do the job. It wasn't pretty, but it worked. Still it didn't produce enough gas to get us much farther.
"That gave us enough gas to get us to where we need to be to get gas," he said.
Google Maps showed increased traffic at a Sam's Club about two miles from the home where we were staying. On the approach we could see cars stacked one behind another, clogging the turn lane of a main road and then snaking painstakingly through a Walmart parking lot. A young mother named Kaat was in line with her daughters. Two toddlers, in line for two hours, in the sweltering heat of August in Florida. She'd opened the van door as they inched along, since using the air conditioning would burn the tiny amount of gas they had left.
"It's really crazy. The kids are really hot and I cannot open the car the whole time so it's hard," Kaat told us. "I had to take her out of the car seat because the sun was on her the whole time and she was sweating like crazy."
When we caught up with their van, the family had just two miles remaining in their tank. They'd evacuated to Panama Beach and just drove back to Naples after Irma. When they arrived at the start of the line, her gas gauge said 37 miles remaining.
"We had just enough gas to get back here. I don't want to be stuck here with the kids," she said.
We watched them inch closer to the pumps. Kaat's relief was evident as they pulled up. She even did a fist pump at the gas pump as the girls made faces through the window.
All things considered, they were lucky. But along the parking lot there were casualties, cars with empty fuel tanks that didn't survive the line. We were among the lucky ones, having pulled up to the pump just 15 minutes before the station's supply was gone. Police on the scene were telling drivers another round of fuel could be available Wednesday. No guarantees. This is the reality in Florida.