Major pipelines reopen after Harvey as lawmakers weigh costs of the storm

Harvey damage is estimated to be $150 billion to $180 billion, costlier than Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy

U.S. President Donald Trump helps volunteers hand out meals during a visit with flood survivors of Hurricane Harvey at a relief center in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

RALEIGH – Gas prices surged over the holiday weekend after flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Texas shut down almost a quarter of the nation’s refining capacity and fears of shortages raced through communities. In N.C. prices topped $2.50 late last week.

Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency Thursday, signing an executive order to temporarily suspend rules on fuel shipping within the state and allowing for the state’s law against price gouging to go into effect.

“This executive order will help essential supplies get to flood victims as soon as possible, while also keeping fuel flowing here in North Carolina,” Cooper said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government tapped its strategic oil reserves for the first time in five years last week. However, the Gulf Coast is moving closer to recovery. On Monday, the biggest fuel system in the country restarted a key segment shut down by devastating rains. Colonial Pipeline reopened a Texas section of its network from Houston to Hebert, Texas, and started moving gasoline on Tuesday. The pipeline’s reopening will restore links between refineries along the Gulf Coast, the country’s oil-refining hub, to markets in the Northeast.

Another fuel system, Explorer Pipeline, said a link running from Texas to Oklahoma restarted on Sunday, while a second pipeline from Oklahoma into the Midwest resumed Monday.

“The disruptions from Hurricane Harvey in the Gulf Coast are gradually clearing,” analysts at Vienna-based JBC Energy said in a note. “In the broader scheme of things, it appears that so far, the energy industry was spared major damages to assets and infrastructure.

“However, some Houston area refineries will likely remain offline for some time longer.”

Hurricane Harvey came ashore on Aug. 25 as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years. It killed an estimated 50 people, displaced more than 1 million and damaged some 200,000 homes in a path of destruction stretching for more than 300 miles.

Over the Labor Day weekend, President Donald Trump took up the mantle of “comforter-in-chief” in a visit to Houston where he played with children and served up food to evacuees. In a widely watched test of his presidential mien, Trump comforted victims and thanked volunteers and first responders after being criticized earlier in the week for not showing sufficient empathy to Texas residents during catastrophic flooding. The day was a rare glimpse into Trump’s interactions with everyday Americans outside his campaign-style rallies.

“It has been a wonderful thing,” Trump said of his meetings with the children as he served food to evacuees amid shouts of “Thank you, sir.”

Trump, who declared Sunday a National Day of Prayer, also went to a church in nearby Pearland, where he and his wife, first lady Melania, helped load half a dozen cars with boxes of supplies for victims.

Trump returned to Washington after the visit, asking Congress for an initial $7.85 billion for recovery efforts, a small fraction of what will eventually be needed. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott estimated damage at $150 billion to $180 billion, calling it costlier than Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, which hit New Orleans in 2005 and New York in 2012, respectively.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin challenged Congress on Sunday to raise the government’s debt limit in order to free up relief spending.

“Without raising the debt limit, I am not comfortable that we will get money to Texas this month to rebuild,” Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday.

Congress must also raise the federal debt ceiling by the end of September or early October to stave off an unprecedented U.S. government debt default, which would shake global markets.

Lawmakers returning to Washington after a month-long break are expected to swiftly agree to Trump’s request for the disaster aid. That sobering cost and the urgent needs of Harvey’s victims have helped to calm a fiscal storm that had threatened to engulf Congress and Trump ahead of Oct. 1.

“There’s reason to hope that in the wake of the tragedy in Texas … there will be a renewed sense of community and common purpose that can help get things done,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who once worked as spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner.

The four top Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House are set to hold a rare bipartisan meeting with Trump on Wednesday to chart a path forward for the multiple fiscal issues.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will attend the meetings, spent much of August feuding with Trump, who attacked the Kentuckian repeatedly on Twitter.

“Basically every Republican senator is looking to put whatever nonsense happened on Twitter in August in the rear view mirror and focus on all the important work that needs to get done in September,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff and campaign manager for McConnell.