NORTH PORT — For several hours Saturday afternoon, North Port City Commissioner Debbie McDowell stood sentry on Price Boulevard.
With Interstate 75 closed because of the risk of flooding, drivers heading north were being rerouted by GPS systems along Price Boulevard in North Port. That would take them over a small bridge with damage from Hurricane Ian that could not be seen from a car.
So McDowell, who had been without power since Wednesday, stepped in to play traffic cop, warning drivers and offering directions to navigate through the partially flooded city. It felt good to be doing something to help a city she said “is really hurt.”
“It’s better than sitting on my hiney at home,” McDowell said. “I feel so helpless.”
The threat of rising waters from the Myakka River led to the closure of a 14-mile stretch of I-75 in Sarasota County between mile marker 179 at Toledo Blade Boulevard in North Port to mile marker 193 at Jacaranda Boulevard in Englewood late Friday.
The result was traffic stalled for hours and panicking motorists who feared running out of fuel in an area where many gas stations are still without power. As the region’s main north-south route, its closure also hampered relief efforts from reaching Fort Myers and other areas hit by Hurricane Ian. The highway reopened around 4 p.m. Saturday after flood waters receded but Florida Department of Transportation officials cautioned that the interstate could be closed again should water levels rise.
Waters from the flooded river did not crest the interstate but were sufficiently close to warrant its closure, said FDOT spokesperson Michael Williams. Photos purporting to show the interstate underwater that were spread widely on social media were not of I-75 but of U.S. Hwy. 17 in Hardee County, he said.
“The water never crested the road,” he said. “It was all precautionary.”
By Saturday morning the state was recommending detours for those traveling south via State Road 60 in Brandon, almost 90 miles from the flooded highway. Northbound drivers were being told to exit at U.S. 27 and U.S. 98.
The detours helped drivers avoid congestion but inevitably there were still delays on Saturday, Williams said.
Conditions were worse for drivers Friday evening when they sat for hours. Around 8 p.m., the highway had become a parking lot.
Cars crammed with belongings from people fleeing the destruction, trucks of electricians, tree-trimmers, storm mitigators. In the left shoulder, blue and red lights of emergency vehicles streaked past, sirens screaming. In the right shoulder, rule-breaking motorists whizzed by.
Some abandoned their cars there with flat tires or no gas. Cell service was spotty meaning drivers could not pull up GPS to look for alternative routes.
An elderly man in a sedan rolled down his passenger window. “What’s happening?” he called. A woman in the SUV next to him told him water was rising in the Myakka River ahead of them. Police were trying to divert everyone off the interstate.
In the nine-mile stretch between Port Charlotte and Toledo Blade Road drivers pulled U-turns in the median. Those who got off the interstate found as much chaos on U.S. Hwy. 41. At one Wawa store, there was a men’s and women’s line to urinate behind the dumpster. Though there was no power, cars were parked at every pump preparing to wait out the night.
“Don’t stay here,” a man warned a car of women. “It’s not safe.”
National Guardsmen were stationed along the detour where few streetlights were working. Gas stations were closed, pumps bagged. Hotels from North Port to Sarasota were full and restaurants and shops shuttered.
Vehicles filled with exhausted kids, grandparents, dogs, had no choice but to wait out the night, hoping for gas the next day.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.