If the Big One threatens the Tampa Bay area this year and the order goes out to evacuate, people fleeing Pinellas County will run into huge road construction projects at the end of all three bridges that head east across the bay.
It's like the perfect storm of road work, and it could hamper hurricane evacuations in Tampa, too.
Couldn't this have been avoided?
Highway officials say it's not that simple. They argue that these big road projects take so long, it's just not feasible to schedule them at different times. But some drivers are second-guessing that call.
No matter what, a major evacuation here would mean miles-long traffic jams. During the biggest one in the bay area's history, leading up to Hurricane Charley in 2004, it took hours to cross any of the bay bridges.
"Let's be honest, the roads are bad on a daily basis. Add a few hundred thousand of your closest friends, and it's a nightmare," said Holly Wade, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Emergency Management.
It's debatable how much of a problem all the road construction would be, although emergency management officials say it certainly wouldn't help. They say a bigger problem is that too many people who should evacuate will stay put, and too many who shouldn't evacuate will hit the road.
Evacuating Pinellas is already a tall order. It's Florida's most densely populated county, located on a peninsula and packed with elderly residents and mobile homes.
Heading east, drivers have three bridges to choose from: the Howard Frankland, the Gandy and the Courtney Campbell Parkway. Here's what they'll find on the other end:
Gandy Boulevard: One side of the road is dug up, compressing traffic into a narrow corridor. It can back up whenever a driver stops to make a left turn. It will stay torn up for nearly a year.
I-275: The bulk of the construction work is off to the side of the road for now, and that won't change during this hurricane season. But traffic flow on this crowded highway is sensitive to the slightest problem. In February, blocking off a merge lane near downtown Tampa caused rush-hour gridlock for a week.
Courtney Campbell/Memorial Highway: The highways near Tampa International Airport are a 3-mile-long construction zone, a shifting maze of concrete barriers, mountains of dirt, and cars slowed by frequently changing traffic patterns.
So why in the world are they tearing up all three escape routes at the same time?
"We don't have the luxury of delaying these projects. When the funding comes in, that's when they start," said Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. "There's so much congestion in the Tampa Bay area, so if we don't start these construction projects, it will only get worse."
Another factor is the sheer scale of the work. The jobs on Gandy, I-275 and Memorial will take two, three and five years, respectively.
Some motorists think that, at the very least, the work on Gandy and I-275 could have been staggered. "Why is every single highway under construction? It's like they get you no matter where you're going," said Tampa truck driver Ron Jarrett.
But both of those jobs got delayed by soaring prices for asphalt, concrete, steel and labor.
Stay or go?
The other options for driving out of Pinellas County are the Sunshine Skyway to the south and U.S. 19 to the north. But ultimately, most bay area evacuees would be heading east toward I-75 or I-4.
The upshot is that people should leave earlier than ever. But officials stress that, unless you're traveling to stay with family elsewhere, fleeing the region may not be the best move.
"If you live in a nonevacuation zone and you're not in a manufactured home, you don't necessarily need to go," said Wade of Hillsborough emergency management. "There's no need to get out on the road and torture yourself like that."
Evacuees could also put themselves in harm's way. Many locals who fled Charley drove east toward Lakeland and Orlando, only to find themselves in the path of the storm.
Pinellas County hurricane preparedness specialist Tom Iovino recommends moving to higher ground locally to escape storm surge. Those in low-lying areas should stay with friends, relatives or co-workers in a nonevacuation zone. Hole up in a sturdy house, board up the windows and reinforce the garage door.
Said Iovino, "I find people who live out on the beaches who are foolhardy and won't leave, and people who live high and dry who will evacuate as quickly as possible."
Mike Brassfield can be reached
or (813) 226-3435.