Thousands of Floridians found themselves in hours of gridlock or slow-moving traffic on Friday as they sought to head north and flee Hurricane Irma’s wrath.
The exodus was so much so that Interstates 95 and 75 were backlogged not only in parts of central and northern Florida, but also into southern Georgia, too.
That prompted Georgia transportation officials to issue a 4 p.m. advisory telling drivers to expect an extra four hours on a trip from the Florida line to Atlanta — almost double the normal travel time. (Georgia is evacuating its coastal residents, too.)
Andrew Sussman, Florida's Hurricane program manager, said there are now 5.6 million people who have been ordered to evacuate.
With the category 4 storm now projected to slam the Keys and southwest Florida before making her way up the peninsula later this weekend, time was quickly running out for many Florida residents to evacuate.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott continued on Friday to urge residents evacuating on crowded roadways to “please be patient” and to keep local emergency shelters in mind and recognize that they need not necessarily travel far to be safe from Irma.
However, by early Friday afternoon, Scott subtly shifted his message by explicitly encouraging evacuees to stop traveling far distances and hunker down for the storm.
“I’m glad to see so many people are traveling to safe places,” Scott said at a media briefing in Tampa, but he added: “If you don’t need to be on the road, get off and go to a shelter.”
A few hours later in Tallahassee, Scott was more firm. He gave South Florida residents a last call to evacuate: Leave by midnight Friday “or do not get on the road.”
Nonetheless, many residents chose to flee many miles from their homes in recent days — with some even seeking refuge in neighboring southern states, like Georgia or Alabama.
From Tampa, Scott cautioned: “We will quickly run out of good weather to evacuate. ... Anywhere in the state, if you’re told to leave, get out.”
By Friday evening, I-75 and the Florida Turnpike remained heavily congested in some areas, as did Interstate 10 — which runs from Jacksonville west through the Panhandle.
Comparably, I-95 seemed free and clear, except for a couple “minor” traffic accidents reported by the state south of Jacksonville.
Traffic issues increased somewhat on I-75 north of Tampa Bay throughout Friday, likely due to new evacuation orders being given for southwest Florida as Irma’s forecast path edged west during the day.
Despite lengthy delays reported by motorists, state officials announced they had no plans to reverse traffic on southbound lanes of the interstates or the Turnpike, a process known as “contraflow” used in other states that might help usher crowds north.
They said they need those lanes open to direct fuel, supplies and emergency response to the south.
By comparison, in Georgia — where Irma’s blow should be weaker — Gov. Nathan Deal ordered on Thursday for contraflow to begin Saturday morning on Interstate 16, so that eastbound lanes would flow west away from evacuation zones along the Atlantic Coast.
But Florida officials did take steps on Friday to ease northbound congestion somewhat by allowing motorists to use the left shoulder as a travel lane on I-75 from the Wildwood interchange — where the Turnpike ends — north to the Georgia line.
Mike Dew, director of the Florida Department of Transportation, told the Times/Herald Friday morning that “traffic is continuing to flow,” even with “pockets of congestion.”
FDOT and the Florida Highway Patrol advised motorists opting to use the shoulder on north I-75 to do so only “when directed by law enforcement and highway signs” and to use caution and not exceed 40 miles per hour.
Driving on the shoulder was still not allowed on any other stretch of roadway, the agencies said.
As of 6 p.m., traffic flows out of South Florida and Southwest Florida remained generally in the green, as they had all day, according to fl511.com, the state’s public source of information on roadway conditions.
The state reported that the Turnpike south of Orlando had, at last, cleared up after hours of traffic jams that had plagued it since Thursday when South Floridians began to evacuate in earnest.
Traffic remained smooth through the Orlando metro, but then drivers were met with delays north of the suburb of Oakland, where a crash around 6 p.m. in Lake County had gummed up the flow.
One of the most prominent bottlenecks in the state — even on the best of days — continued to be problematic: the I-75/Turnpike interchange in Wildwood.
Despite the shoulders being open for use, there were still delays reported on I-75 from south of Ocala, through Gainesville and into Alachua. Drivers should see a brief reprieve from there until Lake City, where the interchange with Interstate 10 presented another logjam.
Farther north into Georgia, patches of heavy traffic were also reported — near Valdosta, Tifton, Macon and on up into the Atlanta metro.
Georgia issued a traffic alert Friday morning advising that toll express lanes on I-75 — which can be found in and near Atlanta — would be flowing only north “due to extra heavy traffic on I-75 northbound coming up from Florida.” (Toll fees have been suspended for those lanes, the state said.)
Meanwhile, I-75 from South Florida via Alligator Alley west to Naples and north through Fort Myers and most of Tampa Bay were generally free-flowing by Friday evening, according to the state. Some minor congestion was still being reported near Bradenton.
I-10, meanwhile, had some delays west of Jacksonville and what appeared to be significant back-ups affecting motorists going from Lake City through west of Tallahassee, with not much reprieve.
Motorists looking for places to gas up while evacuating can check GasBuddy, which offers a tracker on which gas stations have fuel. All service plazas on the Turnpike have fuel, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
Residents concerned about not being able to evacuate because of “fuel issues” can call the state transportation hotline at 1-800-955-5504.
If your vehicle dies on the road and has to be pulled off to the shoulder, do not leave it. Thursday morning, Florida Highway Patrol began towing cars left disabled or abandoned. Call *FHP if you need help.
All 1,700 of the Florida Highway Patrol’s troopers have been called to assist on roadways, officials said, and the numbers of road rangers — who patrol the interstates and the Turnpike to assist broken-down vehicles — have also increased.
Troopers were also working to escort fuel tankers south to hurry supplies toward gas stations that have run out.
The Turnpike was an especially attractive option for evacuees this week, because there are no tolls on Florida roads since those were lifted Tuesday evening.
Another motorist said he found reprieve from traffic by traveling in the dead of night Friday morning.
Florida transportation officials have issued an alert, via fl511, urging motorists to “use caution and plan ahead.” Information was not offered as to how much extra travel time motorists should expect.
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles on Friday also warned against “people sleeping on the shoulder of major interstates,” which the agency said they had received reports about. “This is very dangerous,” the agency said on Twitter.
Scott said Florida officials are working with Google to provide real-time updates of road closures once those are needed before, during and after the storm.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writers Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.