Tampa Bay traffic is already a slog. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of people using those same interstates at the same time, all trying to escape in the same direction, while a hurricane churns toward land.
Nearly every scenario seems nightmarish: In Pinellas County, a Level D evacuation gives 585,000 people — half the county's population — 36 hours to crawl across the Courtney Campbell Causeway, Howard Frankland and Gandy bridges. In Pasco County, a Level B evacuation means nearly 175,000 people would have 24 hours to flee east along just two roads, State Roads 52 and 54.
And if a monster hurricane takes aim at the bay area, the highest evacuation level in Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Manatee counties would result in a total of 1.5 million — half the region — ordered to leave their homes over two full days.
The Tampa Bay area has a booming population but a busted road network. Emergency management officials wonder how a region that can't handle rush-hour traffic will deal with the realities of a major hurricane evacuation. The bay area hasn't had a direct hurricane strike in nearly a century and hasn't had a major evacuation in more than a decade.
"You already have transportation nightmares there," W. Craig Fugate, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator who once served as Florida's top emergency official, said of the bay area. "The last thing you want is to be on the causeways, fully exposed to winds of 40 mph, gusting higher, with waves crashing over the causeways and you're stuck in traffic."
Still, emergency planners have tried to account for all this. The models are conservative and account for all sorts of delays: picking kids up from school, an evacuation ordered at night, residents reluctant to leave, traffic building up as one county's evacuation pours into another.
The region's emergency services directors try their best to coordinate so that different evacuation levels don't pile up on each other. Still, there are limits to what can be done.
"Florida is a peninsula," said Laura Black, Pasco County assistant director of emergency management, "and there are only so many places you can go to evacuate."
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Nearly 100 years have passed since Tampa Bay suffered a direct strike — a Category 3 hurricane that made landfall near Tarpon Springs in 1921.
The region's last major evacuation was for Hurricane Charley in 2004. The Category 4 storm was just three hours away from the bay area when it suddenly veered toward Charlotte County with its 150-mph winds, sparing the Tampa Bay region.
Before Charley changed direction, more than 1.2 million Tampa Bay residents were ordered to evacuate before a 16-foot storm surge arrived, according to state records. News accounts at the time reported bumper-to-bumper traffic across the three Pinellas bridges. Traffic backed up 30 miles or more. Some drivers said it took two hours to cross the bay.
The Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Manatee region's total population then was about 2.5 million, according to U.S. Census records. It is now up to 3.3 million people.
Last year's two storms — Hermine and Matthew, the first hurricanes to touch Florida in a decade — gave people a glimpse of what to expect, said Hillsborough County emergency management dirctor Preston Cook.
Neither storm reached the Tampa Bay area, but some Hillsborough residents decided to drive to Orlando as storm bands reached the east coast. But what was usually an hour drive to Orlando, Cook said, turned into four hours.
"We saw traffic four times as bad as it usually is here for a storm that wasn't a direct hit and wasn't a Category 4 or 5," Preston said.
• That raises an important point emergency officials want people to keep in mind: Don't evacuate if you don't have to. That just adds more cars to already overburdened roads.
"Sometimes, it could be better that people do shelter in place," Black said. "If they're not in an evacuation zone, it might be safer for them to stay there and not clog up the roads."
• Another tip: Have a plan and know where to go. That's because not everyone has to drive 100 miles in an evacuation. Sometimes 10 miles is good enough. Residents may only need to move further into their own counties, not head for another part of the state.
"Everyone thinks, 'We've got to get to Orlando or Ocala,' " said Brady Smith, principal planner for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. "You may just have to go halfway across town to your friend's house. Moving inland keeps people off the evacuation network and means fewer cars lined up and down the interstate."
• That also means residents must know what evacuation zone they live in. And if an evacuation is ordered for your zone, leave immediately. Don't wait.
Thankfully, hurricanes usually take time to form. Their paths can be predicted. That means officials have time to call for evacuations and get people on the road.
"The good thing about a hurricane is it's not a tornado," Cook said. "It doesn't require us to pull a trigger today at 4:02 p.m. and have everybody evacuated by 6:03 p.m."
Fugate, who was Florida's emergency management director when Charley and three other hurricanes struck the state in 2004, said drivers may not be prepared for just how bad an evacuation can be.
"We don't really give people a good expectation during an evacuation," he said. "We've kind of sanitized it. We haven't told people you're going to be in the worst traffic ever in your life. Stop and go. Crawling at 5 mph."
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The Florida Department of Transportation is hoping its new evacuation plan will help.
The state's old plan called for converting major highways — like Interstate 4 and Alligator Alley (I-75) — into one-way exit routes. If people were evacuating to the north, the southbound lanes would change direction, so the entire interstate would move in one direction. (In the case of a southbound moving storm — a much less likely scenario — the reverse would happen.)
Converting both directions of an interstate to a massive one-way artery boosts capacity, but it also calls for more resources, said Angela Allen, emergency coordinating officer for DOT's Tampa Bay office. It required about 100 officers to close ramps and direct traffic.
There was also a safety concern: reversing traffic meant signs faced the wrong direction. Drivers could become disoriented.
The 2017 hurricane season starts June 1, and so does the state's new evacuation plan for the Tampa Bay region: Instead of making I-4 a one-way road, DOT will convert the inner shoulder to an additional lane. That won't provide as much capacity, but officials said it's safer than the reverse-lanes plan. The I-4 corridor is the escape route for Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas residents if they need to seek shelter in Central Florida.
Another perk? It requires far less law enforcement resources.
The state will do the same for three other major evacuation routes: I-75 from Wildwood to the Georgia line, I-75 through Alligator Alley and I-10 from Jacksonville to I-75.
But planners can only do so much. Allen said the most important part of a successful and timely evacuation is making sure people are prepared and ready to get on the road as quickly as possible. The faster residents respond to evacuation orders, she said, the less likely they are to get stuck crawling through traffic — or worse still, when the storm hits.
"We do all that we can to try to keep (evacuation gridlock) from happening," Allen said. "We never know what people are actually going to do."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.