From Monday evening:
After Hurricane Irma drove them from their homes, millions of Floridians were eager to return and survey what damage might await them.
And against the advice of state and local leaders, many took to the road to rush home — creating pockets of congestion on Florida’s interstates and main highways by Monday afternoon.
Some evacuees fled hundreds of miles to escape the storm. Coming back, they’re likely to be met with traffic delays, a fuel shortage, debris clean-up and possibly blocked access to their communities — which is why government officials have a singular message: Don’t try to go home yet.
Don’t think just because this thing passed you can run home.
Gov. Rick Scott
“Don’t think just because this thing passed you can run home,” Gov. Rick Scott said at a briefing in Opa-locka. “We’ve got downed power lines across the state. Roads that are impassable all over this state. We have debris all over this state.
“If you don’t need to be on the roads, don’t get out,” Scott urged residents.
Even the White House urged patience and said evacuees should not return until they were told. But drivers were, nonetheless, clearly trying to do so — particularly in Central Florida and on southbound highways.
State officials say no main highways or interstates were closed as of Monday afternoon. However, information presented at an evening briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee — which reporters were again barred from — indicated continued closures on portions of Interstate 95 in Duval County and areas of I-95 and I-75 in Miami-Dade County due to flooding or debris.
Access to the Keys via U.S. 1 remained blocked “until further notice” because of the extent of the damage there.
The Florida Department of Transportation advised that all bridges were closed in St. Johns County — an area inundated with unprecedented flooding. Nearby, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office tweeted that all bridges over the Intracoastal had reopened by 6 p.m.
By early evening, Interstate 4 westbound out of Orlando was seeing congestion near Lakeland and Plant City into Tampa. Flooding was also reported on I-4 near Disney World.
In North Florida, Interstate 10 eastbound at the interchange with Interstate 75 in Lake City was getting backed up for several miles.
The interchange in Wildwood where Florida’s Turnpike merges with I-75 — one of the worst bottlenecks in the state — was also clogging up with southbound crowds. I-75 near Spring Lake had congestion, too.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge south of St. Petersburg remained closed.
Another logjam surfaced south of Palm Bay on southbound Interstate 95. Images provided by FDOT showed all three lanes clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic around 4:15 p.m.
Both the turnpike and I-95 through Port St. Lucie also appeared to have congestion.
The state reported various stretches of interstate — particularly in hard-hit areas like Miami-Dade or Jacksonville — that had obstacles on roadways, likely from storm debris, that motorists should watch out for.
“Debris and areas of standing water are possible on southwest Florida roads,” the DOT advised.
Monday afternoon, flooding was reported still on I-95 near Port Orange, forcing the on-ramp to I-4 to close.
Evacuees who fled long distances should 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.
And realize you might have trouble finding places to gas up. As before Irma, Florida faces a fuel shortage.
Motorists looking for places to gas up while evacuating can check GasBuddy, which offers a tracker on which gas stations have fuel. Fuel was not available Monday at turnpike service plazas, the state said.
Scott reiterated 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, he said.
All of Florida’s seaports, except for Port Pensacola, remained closed — including Port Everglades and Port Tampa Bay, according to information presented at the evening briefing at the state EOC.
Suppliers face an uphill battle in the coming days, trying to keep gas stations supplied, as Florida evacuees return home in large numbers after the storm.
Gas stations not located along major highways should have an easier time keeping supplies, as residents are no longer “panic pumping” because the storm is no longer a threat. Refueling gas stations along major evacuation routes will be a top priority, as it was before the storm.
Motorists are still likely to find long lines, which could lead to temporary outages, due to the surge in demand. It could take a week for supply conditions to return to normal
“Florida evacuees should plan their return home very carefully,” said Mark Jenkins, spokesman for AAA - The Auto Club Group. “First, ensure you know there are no major hazards at home or along your travel route. Expect congestion on the roadways, as the first few days after the storm will be the busiest. Pay close attention to traffic reports.”
Jenkins added: “Ensure you have a full tank of gas before you hit the road. Do not let your fuel gauge fall below a quarter tank before you start looking for a place to refuel. Bring a gas can in case you run out of fuel. It is not safe to drive with a full gas can inside an enclosed vehicle.”
Meanwhile, Scott said state DOT officials were inspecting roads and bridges for damage caused by Irma.
There was damage in the Florida Keys but roads were passable, Scott said after flying over the Keys Monday afternoon.
Residents who live in Florida’s coastal areas should prepare for a wait before they return. “We need DOT to inspect the bridges before people go back to these barrier islands,” Scott said, saying it was a “top priority.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.