Last updated: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
If you chose to drive back home on Tuesday after evacuating from Irma, you were among thousands of others who faced a frustrating and long trip.
Traffic jams had already formed by mid-morning and continued throughout the day in Florida and southern Georgia, as millions of evacuated residents flooded back into and through the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
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Many drivers confronted gridlock, lengthy delays and uncertainty in knowing where the next gas station with fuel might be.
One of the worst areas: Interstate 75.
Drivers coming down I-75 faced backups by Tuesday afternoon for most of the 150-mile stretch that spans from the Georgia line south to an interchange in Wildwood, where Florida’s Turnpike begins.
The only free-flowing spots, as of mid-afternoon, seemed to be north of Alachua and just south of Gainesville through Micanopy.
But during a visit to the state Emergency Operations Center, Gov. Rick Scott appeared to downplay the traffic headaches Floridians were experiencing as they returned.
He walked through a room of traffic experts, where a live camera showed the massive traffic jam in Wildwood.
“The only slowdown I see right now is the 75-Turnpike, where they come together — but it’s moving,” Scott said. “DOT has done a real good job keeping that moving, but we’ve got to keep fuel on that road.”
When it came to reliable information on where fuel was available, the state offered little guidance to motorists other than referring them to GasBuddy, which offers a crowd-sourced tracker for which gas stations have fuel.
And I-75 wasn’t the only place drivers were met with logjams. Other pockets of congestion were present on stretches of eastbound Interstate 10 through North Florida, southbound Interstate 95 along the Atlantic Coast and the turnpike to South Florida.
Severe gridlock especially plagued two major bottlenecks on southbound I-75 — the interchange with I-10 in Lake City and the Wildwood interchange.
For most of the day, the I-10 interchange was jammed headed south on I-75 from the Georgia border and from the west on I-10 with eastbound traffic exiting onto I-75 south. There were no signs of it letting up.
I-10 was also backed up in several stretches as far west as Pensacola into Alabama. Delays were prevalent through the Panhandle near Chipley and Marianna and through Tallahassee.
The Wildwood interchange for I-75 and the turnpike is one of the most troublesome bottlenecks in the state even on a good day. Drivers were plagued with long delays there late last week as they fled north. Now it’s happening in reverse.
The heavy traffic conditions magnified throughout Tuesday as more people got on the road. Many evacuees fled long distances from their homes — some even out of state to places like Georgia and Alabama.
That meant traffic jams were likely on almost all major routes back southward, even in areas that usually aren’t congested.
The Florida Department of Transportation does not offer information on how long traffic delays might be, but motorists could assume a wait. Drivers leaving the state last week reported being stuck in traffic for hours.
Southbound I-75 in Georgia was seeing delays out of Atlanta and into Macon and Valdosta as Floridians headed back south. Georgia’s toll express lanes through Atlanta were operating southbound only “until further notice to accommodate the return Florida traffic,” the Georgia Department of Transportation said.
Toll fees on Georgia’s I-75 express lanes and throughout the state of Florida remain suspended.
Because of the crowds heading south, worse-than-normal delays plagued I-75 through Lake City, Gainesville and Ocala — and particularly at the Wildwood interchange. Even farther south near Spring Lake, headed into Tampa, congestion was reported.
I-4 westbound from Orlando into Tampa had some slow-moving stretches by midday, but that appeared to have cleared up by mid-afternoon.
Eastbound I-95 in downtown Miami was backed up in all three lanes at sunrise with residents seeking to return to Miami Beach when officials re-opened access at 8 a.m. There appeared to still be some delays in that area and southward on U.S. 1 by 3 p.m.
Despite the mass exodus south, drivers were not allowed to use the left shoulder as a travel lane — as they were allowed on parts of northbound I-75 and eastbound I-4 during the days of evacuations.
State officials say Florida’s roads are designed for heavy traffic during evacuations only on northbound lanes, not southbound. They say it would be unsafe to allow shoulder usage to expedite evacuees’ return.
Drivers were advised to 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.
Flooding had forced some roads to close in certain pockets of the state, as of late Monday and early Tuesday, but state officials said that no flooding was reported by mid-morning Tuesday on the interstates or the turnpike. Those areas were cleared of debris by Monday evening.
U.S. 1 into the Keys was restricted to residents and business owners from the Upper Keys — including Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.
The county said the FDOT had inspected all of the bridges along U.S. 1 and all of them are safe through mile marker 16. Crews would continue safety checks on the remaining bridges in coming days.
Road and bridge closures were reported early Tuesday in St. Johns County in northeast Florida, which saw unprecedented flooding on Monday from Irma’s rains and storm surge.
Drivers were warned: Fuel would likely be hard to find.
There was a run on fuel before the storm, and there will be afterward — driven by the demands of evacuees returning, vast power outages statewide forcing the use of gas-powered generators and drivers desiring to keep their tanks full during the shortage.
According to the state’s turnpike website, the service plaza’s were open and all eight had fuel as of mid-afternoon. Diesel fuel was still unavailable, though, at the Canoe Creek and Pompano Beach plazas.
Scott has reiterated that 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, as they did before the storm, he said.
Port Everglades reopened to shipping Tuesday afternoon and five of its petroleum terminals also were open and supplying fuel to local gas stations.
An 11 a.m. update from Scott’s office said 20 Florida Highway Patrol troopers had been dedicated to escort fuel to impacted areas from Port Everglades, Port Tampa Bay, Port Jacksonville and Port Canaveral “as soon as ports reopen.”
“We are working around the clock to resupply fuel to Florida,” he said in a tweet late Monday.
Trucks are being fueled at the ports and then meeting the FHP troopers at various rallying points on highways, Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said.
Troopers are taking two or three trucks at a time up the highway and the trucks are peeling off at exits. If there is traffic at an exit, a trooper will guide them to the specific gas station.
GasBuddy spokesman Patrick DeHaan said that users can learn when a station has gas by checking the app. “Many stations in Florida we’re getting 5 to 10 updates per day per station,” he said.
FHP was also providing security escorts from the Georgia-Florida line for 600 utility trucks traveling to southwest Florida and for 44 tractor-trailers with relief supplies traveling down to Miami, the governor’s office said.
Seven AT&T communication trucks were also getting a trooper escort into the Keys.
The 1,700 FHP troopers continue to work 12-hour shifts to assist with emergency response, the governor’s office said.
Kristen M. Clark reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau. Miami Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, David J. Neal and Carli Teproff contributed.