Short supply of helium not expected to deflate Valentine’s Day balloons

Without it, heart-shaped balloons would fall flat this Valentine’s Day.

But don’t worry. Local retailers loaded up early on helium, which is fast becoming a hot commodity.

The floral shop at Hy-Vee, 3504 Clinton Parkway, planned several months in advance just to ensure they’d have enough helium to keep the romantics happy and the balloons flying.

“We’ve been stockpiling,” said store manager Andrew Yochum. “Whatever we can get our hands on.”

Retailers across the country face a similar situation, as supplies of helium have dwindled during the past few years, said Marty Fish, executive director of the Wichita-based International Balloon Association.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for some retailers,” Fish said.

The helium supply has a long and complicated history in the United States, Fish said, dating back to World War II.

The United States built the infrastructure to manufacture and distribute helium and stored it away in Texas. But in recent years, those supplies have been bought by other interests and used in a variety of industries that take priority over retailers. For instance, helium is used in hospitals to cool MRI machines and for other medical research.

And no one in the United States is replacing the supply.

“What’s there is there,” Fish said.

That means the price goes up for retailers. A tank of helium that cost about $35 a tank in the 1990s is up over $70 today, depending on its location, Fish said.

That leaves retailers rationing what they can get, and sometimes adding just plain old air to their helium mix.

But Fish is optimistic that overseas suppliers will increase production.

“We have hope in the balloon industry that we’ll continue to get helium,” she said.