TALLAHASSEE — Floridians still trying to drive home after Hurricane Irma were met with welcome news Thursday morning: Interstate 75 through north-central Florida would not close after all.
A 36-mile stretch of the north-south thoroughfare was under threat of being shut down because of the flooded Sante Fe River, which rose rapidly after historic-level flooding struck Jacksonville on Monday. The river's rise to unprecedented levels was concerning enough that the Florida Department of Transportation had alerted residents Wednesday morning of the potential interstate closure.
But at 10 a.m. Thursday, FDOT announced that I-75 would remain open as flood waters receded.
"As of this morning, FDOT engineers and state meteorologists do not believe that the Santa Fe River will reach a level to make the interstate unsafe," the agency announced in a statement.
Earlier Thursday, state emergency management officials in Tallahassee told their staff that "it looks like we're [in the] clear," because the flooded Sante Fe River had "stabilized" overnight .
"We were lucky with the Sante Fe on I-75," Leo Lachat, the State Emergency Response Team chief, told personnel during a morning briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center. "That was a blessing to us last night to not have to close that bridge."
State officials have barred media from briefings at the EOC. Lachat's comments were overheard by a Times/Herald reporter listening through a glass wall that separates the EOC's nerve center from an adjacent media work room.
The river flows under a bridge on I-75 near mile marker 408 north of Alachua. If it had risen to a level that FDOT officials determined unsafe, they were prepared to close the interstate from I-10 in Lake City south to U.S. 441 in Alachua.
That would have diverted all drivers — including thousands of returning evacuees traveling back south — onto detours potentially hundreds of miles out of the way at a time when heavy traffic and limited availability of gas have already been ongoing frustrations.
While Gov. Rick Scott's office wouldn't say what flood height would require FDOT to close the bridge, an official from the U.S. Geological Survey told the Times/Herald they were informed by FDOT the interstate would have had to be closed at a river level of 58 feet.
Earlier Thursday, the river rose to within a foot of FDOT's reported cut-off for closing the interstate. National Weather Service data indicates the river near I-75 reached its crest at a height of 57.07 feet at around 7:15 a.m., after which the water level gradually began to drop through the day.
According to the USGS, the Sante Fe River at O'Leno State Park — less than a mile to the west of I-75 and the nearest marker to the interstate — measured at 56.88 feet as of 3:15 p.m. Thursday.
The previous record-high crest for the Sante Fe River at that location was 54.44 feet in June 2012, according to the Weather Service. (Flood stage there is 43 feet.)
There was visibly less congestion on the state's main interstates and Florida's Turnpike into midday — a departure from the clogged roadways that plagued motorists Tuesday and again Wednesday in the post-hurricane rush home.
Tuesday appeared to be the worst of the returning traffic so far, with Wednesday bringing less intense congestion on the roads, based on observations of fl511.com, the state's source for real-time traffic conditions. But FDOT officials caution: "Travelers should be prepared for significant delays" through Saturday.
As of mid-afternoon, there were few reported areas of congestion in the state, as there had been all day.
A crash on southbound I-95 just northwest of St. Augustine caused a delay coming out of Jacksonville for much of the afternoon, and there were occasional backups during the day on the I-295 bypass around Jacksonville.
Driving down I-75 in Central Florida was slow at times through Ocala and again in Wildwood, where the interstate meets the Turnpike. But that interchange can be a bad bottleneck even on normal days.
There was also some congestion reported through Orlando on westbound I-4 and on the southbound Turnpike near Kissimmee in the early afternoon.
Another familiar bottleneck — the I-10/I-75 interchange in Lake City, about 45 miles south of the Georgia line — appeared to have no problems Thursday.
Typical morning rush-hour traffic seemed to surface in pockets of South Florida, Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando as Floridians began returning to work or school, offering the start of a return to normal routines.
But in contrast to earlier this week, there appeared to be no major backlogs that were visibly associated with evacuating traffic coming home.
On both Tuesday and Wednesday, the roads were clearest in the morning and became more crowded — with more logjams — by the evening. Not so on Thursday.
For traffic updates, Scott's administration has heavily promoted two websites before and after the storm: fl511.com and GasBuddy, a privately run website and mobile app that offers a crowd-sourced tracker on which gas stations have fuel.
Roadway tolls remain suspended statewide. It's unclear how soon the fees might be reinstated.
Florida Highway Patrol troopers continue to escort fuel tankers to gas stations statewide from main seaports, such as Port Everglades and Port Tampa Bay.
Addressing the post-hurricane fuel shortage has been a top priority for state emergency response officials, as has power restoration for the 2.3 million still without as of mid-afternoon Wednesday.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at email@example.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark