Monday, July 16, 2018

Coming home after evacuating Irma? Here's what to expect on the roads.

TALLAHASSEE — If you chose to drive back home Tuesday after evacuating from Irma, you were among thousands of others who faced a frustrating and long trip.

Traffic jams had already formed by mid-morning and continued throughout the day in Florida and southern Georgia, as millions of evacuated residents flooded back into and through the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Many drivers confronted gridlock, lengthy delays and uncertainty in knowing where the next gas station with fuel might be.

One of the worst areas: Interstate 75.

Drivers coming down I-75 faced backups by Tuesday afternoon for most of the 150-mile stretch that spans from the Georgia line south to an interchange in Wildwood, where the Florida Turnpike begins.

The only free-flowing spots, as of mid-afternoon, seemed to be north of Alachua and just south of Gainesville through Micanopy.

But during a visit to the state Emergency Operations Center, Gov. Rick Scott appeared to downplay the traffic headaches Floridians were experiencing as they returned.

He walked through a room of traffic experts, where a live camera showed the massive traffic jam in Wildwood.

"The only slowdown I see right now is the 75-Turnpike, where they come together — but it's moving," Scott said. "DOT has done a real good job keeping that moving, but we've got to keep fuel on that road."

I-75 wasn't the only place drivers were met with logjams. Other pockets of congestion were present on stretches of eastbound Interstate 10 through North Florida, southbound Interstate 95 along the Atlantic coast and the Florida Turnpike to South Florida.

Severe gridlock especially plagued two major bottlenecks on southbound I-75 — the interchange with I-10 in Lake City and the Wildwood interchange.

For most of the day, the I-10 interchange was jammed headed south on I-75 from the Georgia border and from the west on I-10 with eastbound traffic exiting onto I-75 South. There were no signs of it letting up.

The Wildwood interchange for I-75 and the Turnpike is one of the most troublesome bottlenecks in the state even on a good day. Drivers were plagued with long delays there late last week as they fled north. Now it's happening in reverse.

Southbound I-75 in Georgia was seeing delays out of Atlanta and into Macon and Valdosta as Floridians headed back south. Georgia's toll express lanes through Atlanta were operating southbound only "until further notice to accommodate the return Florida traffic," the Georgia Department of Transportation advised.

Toll fees on Georgia's I-75 express lanes and throughout the state of Florida remain suspended.

Despite the mass exodus back south, drivers were not allowed to use the left shoulder as a travel lane — as they were allowed to do on parts of northbound I-75 and eastbound Interstate 4 during the days of evacuations.

State officials say Florida's roads are designed for heavy traffic during evacuations only on northbound lanes, not southbound. They say it would be unsafe to allow shoulder usage to expedite evacuees' return.

Drivers were advised to check with their local communities and fl511.com — the state's source for real-time traffic conditions — before getting on the road. Reports of road and bridge closures are also available online from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Scott has reiterated that the state is working to get fuel transported from ports in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. Tankers would continue to get escorts by the Florida Highway Patrol, as they did before the storm, he said.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and Herald staff writers David J. Neal, Mimi Whitefield and Carli Teproff contributed to this report. Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark

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