At any rate, and at some risk of sounding ghoulishly detached, Hurricane Sandy is creating a pretty interesting natural experiment that is illuminating some of the issues. The hurricane hit land on Monday evening, and by Thursday the entire region is close to out of gas:
The lines of cars waiting for gas at a Sunoco here ran in three directions: a mile-long line up the Garden State Parkway, a half-mile line along Vauxhall Road, and another, including a fleet of mail trucks that needed to refuel before resuming their rounds, snaking through a back entrance. The scene was being replayed across the state as drivers waited in lines that ran hundreds of vehicles deep, requiring state troopers and local police to protect against exploding tempers.It sounds like this is a non-trivial threat to social order if it goes on a lot longer. And it illustrates that despite a fairly focussed and competent-seeming response by authorities at all levels, the interlocking nature of infrastructures, and the lack of much inventory in the system, mean that it's quite hard to recover if enough infrastructure is damaged at the same time. And, as in the case of the 2000 UK petrol strike, people get really ugly, really fast once their access to food and fuel is threatened.
“I’ve been pumping gas for 36 hours, I pumped 17,000 gallons,” said Abhishek Soni, the owner of an Exxon in Montclair, where disputes on the line Wednesday night had become so heated that Mr. Soni called the police and turned off the pumps for 45 minutes to restore calm. “My nose, my mouth is bleeding from the fumes. The fighting just makes it worse.”
Four days after Hurricane Sandy, the effort to secure enough gas for the region moved to the forefront of recovery work. The problems affected even New York City, where the Taxi Commission warned that the suddenly indispensable fleet of yellow cabs would thin significantly Friday because of the fuel shortage.
In this case, it seems that the issues are a combination of refinery outages and gas stations without power:
The ports and refineries that supply much of the region’s gas had been shut down in advance of the storm and were damaged by it. That disrupted deliveries to gas stations that had power to pump the fuel. But the bigger problem was that many stations and storage facilities remained without power.The picture this conjures is of large amounts of gasoline sitting underground unusable because the fuel station above lacks power. This suggests scope for legal requirements to improve resilience. If fuel stations were required to have generators, they'd always have power. If they were required to hold a larger minimum fuel stock, they would last longer before running out in a crisis. Neither measure is in the interests of an individual station owner unless his or her competitors are also required to do it. Both would tremendously increase the resiliency of the overall system. Repairs to all other infrastructures (power, subways, phones, etc) require people running around in trucks fixing things and those trucks running short of fuel will have a very deleterious effect on the speed of recovery of the region's economy.
It also raises some interesting questions about what would happen if New York was rendered largely unable to operate for an extended period. I would guess that New York is the most critical city in the global economy due its role in the global financial system. I would guess things would go pretty seriously awry if New York ever couldn't function for weeks.