Last updated 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Motorists traveling back south after evacuating for Hurricane Irma had a potentially new and urgent headache to deal with on Wednesday beyond the abnormal congestion they could already expect.
A rapidly rising river — caused by the historic flooding that Jacksonville saw on Monday — threatened to force 36 miles of Interstate 75 to completely shut down in north-central Florida, from Interstate 10 in Lake City south to U.S. 441 in Alachua.
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Portions of two main highways nearby were forced to close by early evening because of the swelling Sante Fe River.
Stretches of U.S. 41 and U.S. 27 north of High Springs — on the border of Alachua and Columbia counties — were blocked off because of rising water under bridges that spanned the Sante Fe, state officials said. Drivers were re-routed on local detours.
Late Wednesday, I-75 over the Sante Fe River near mile marker 408 remained open and “passable,” said McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott. He said there were no plans to close the interstate overnight.
An estimate of how soon a closure could happen was not available. During an evening briefing to personnel at the state Emergency Operations Center — which was closed to press — officials presented National Weather Service data, which they said indicated the Sante Fe River at I-75 was “nearing crest.”
If the interstate had to be shut down, however, such a closure of the interstate would force drivers onto long detours that could add as much as 200 or 300 miles to an already grueling trip home.
State transportation officials first warned early Wednesday of the potential closure, and they kept close watch of the river all day as it inched higher.
The I-75 bridge over the Sante Fe River near mile marker 408 “remains safe and passable,” state transportation officials said early Wednesday when they first warned of the potential closure. That status had not changed into the evening, and state officials continued to watch the river closely as it inched higher.
“The river is expected to crest at historic and unprecedented levels presenting a potential threat to the safety of travel on this bridge,” the Florida Department of Transportation said in a statement. By early Wednesday, the river under I-75 had “rapidly risen 15 feet within the past 36 hours due to the heavy rainfall over North Florida from Hurricane Irma.”
“If the river were to rise to an unsafe level, the bridge would become impassable both northbound and southbound, and would be closed immediately,” FDOT warned.
Lewis said FDOT bridge inspectors and the U. S. Geological Survey were monitoring river levels at the bridge around the clock.
Those officials would make the call to close the interstate when they felt it necessary, with enough advanced warning to allow law enforcement to shut down I-75 travel lanes in both directions and let existing traffic move through, Lewis said.
Lewis could not say how high the river would have to climb before FDOT would close the bridge. However, an official from the USGS told the Herald/Times they were informed by FDOT the interstate would have to be closed at a river level of 58 feet.
According to the USGS, the Sante Fe River at O’Leno State Park — less than a mile to the west of I-75 — measured at 56.61 feet as of 4:15 p.m. Wednesday. It was expected to crest overnight.
The flood threat at the bridge was an additional reason state officials urged residents not to drive home yet on Wednesday.
But thousands still did, and the state advised them to plan accordingly for long waits and traffic jams.
“Travelers should be prepared for significant delays” through Saturday, FDOT advised.
Even early-risers on Wednesday hit congestion on southbound I-75 through north-central Florida, and congestion only got worse throughout the day.
Heavy traffic was reported on southbound I-75 as early as 5:30 a.m. — with conditions by early evening showing continued pockets of moderate to severe congestion from south of Lake City through Gainesville and Ocala into Wildwood.
Gainesville traffic officials advised drivers on Tuesday to “expect delays [and] consider alternate routes” through the area.
Because of the potential need to close I-75, FDOT advised residents to consider alternative routes and back-road highways — such as U.S. 19, U.S. 98 and U.S. 27 (where it was still open) along the Big Bend from south of Tallahassee to Ocala or Tampa Bay, or I-10 east to Jacksonville and south on I-95 and I-4 from there.
The state plans to recommend those routes as detours in the event the vulnerable stretch of I-75 needs to be closed.
Earlier Wednesday, FDOT did warn closures and “extensive rerouting of traffic” could also hit U.S. 27, U.S. 41, U.S. 441, State Road 47 and possibly U.S. 121 in the area — which would affect their use as possible detours.
U.S. 301 — which crosses the state on a path southwest from Jacksonville to Tampa — was not recommended as a detour route, because it’s used as a supply road to ferry fuel and other necessities into the state, Lewis said.
“Safety is always our top priority and additional updates will be released as soon as available,” FDOT said.
Farther south, the interchange in Wildwood where I-75 meets Florida’s Turnpike is a headache on a normal day, but the bottleneck has been especially hellish to navigate as evacuees fled and now return through Central Florida’s north-south thoroughfares.
It was backed up again for several hours on Wednesday.
Another trouble spot — the I-10/I-75 interchange in Lake City, about 45 miles south of the Georgia line — also had another day of congestion as evacuees made their return from refuges in Georgia and Alabama. I-10 eastbound also had heavy traffic, particularly through Tallahassee.
Occasional gridlock hit westbound I-4 out of Orlando and southbound I-75 into the Tampa Bay area near Spring Lake and farther south near Temple Terrace and Brandon. By early evening, the heavy traffic had filtered down to the Bradenton area, too.
Meanwhile, the southbound Turnpike had some congestion through Orlando, near Port St. Lucie and — during morning and evening rush-hour — through Palm Beach County and southward, but the roadway was largely free-flowing most of the day.
Southbound I-95 along Florida’s Atlantic Coast had heavy traffic reported on the I-295 bypass around Jacksonville and north and south of the city. There was also some evening rush-hour traffic through Fort Pierce and Broward County.
In Georgia, southbound I-75 lanes were log-jammed on Tuesday from the Floridians seeking to return, and that returned by midday Wednesday but not as badly. Heavy congestion was reported between Atlanta and Macon. The stretch from Macon south to the Florida line appeared to have no delays.
Eastbound I-10 in Alabama headed into Pensacola, also saw similar back-ups Tuesday, but traffic was free-flowing on Wednesday.
Tolls remain suspended all throughout Florida and on Georgia’s I-75 express lanes in Atlanta.
For traffic updates, Scott’s administration has heavily promoted two websites before and after the storm: fl511.com — where FDOT reports real-time traffic conditions — and GasBuddy, a privately run website and mobile app that offers a crowd-sourced tracker on which gas stations have fuel.
The state has offered little additional traffic information to reporters beyond what is already publicly available to motorists on those two websites.
The governor’s office has made state transportation director Mike Dew available only twice for a briefing on traffic conditions and the state’s efforts to ease the burden on motorists. Aides to Scott have more frequently relayed information about traffic updates, after requests from the Herald/Times.
While fl511.com shows were traffic congestion is at any given time, it offers drivers little perspective on how long they’ll have to wait. FDOT said it doesn’t track traffic delays.
The site didn’t include any obvious mention of road closures until Tuesday, after the Herald/Times inquired about the absent information. By mid-morning on Wednesday, officials had added another new color-coded feature to better highlight where drivers can find road detours on the website.
To address issues of fuel availability, Florida Highway Patrol troopers are escorting fuel tankers on the interstates, turnpike and main highways to expedite supply to gas stations — with priority for the primary thoroughfares motorists will use to travel back into Florida, the governor’s office said.
More troopers and road rangers — which aid broken-down vehicles — are also patrolling the interstates and turnpike to ensure accidents and disabled vehicles don’t exacerbate traffic flows.
State officials have told the Herald/Times that drivers shouldn’t expect to use the left shoulder as a travel lane — as they were allowed to do on parts of northbound I-75 and eastbound I-4 during the days of evacuations. Florida’s roads are designed for heavy traffic during evacuations only on northbound lanes, not southbound, and transportation officials say it would be unsafe to allow shoulder usage to expedite evacuees’ return.
Late Tuesday, Scott repeated that addressing the fuel shortage — as well as widespread power outages — was among his top priorities after Irma.
“We are working with local officials, public and private utility companies and the federal government to fill gas tanks and turn on the lights,” he said in a statement.
By early Wednesday, most all of Florida’s seaports had reopened including the three that are the main conduits for fuel: Port Tampa, Port Everglades and Port Canaveral.
“Each port is prioritizing fuel shipments and FHP is escorting fuel resupply trucks to gas stations,” the governor’s office said in an update around 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Port Everglades had three fuel resupply tankers at berth, and Port Tampa was due to receive 10 tankers within the next 48 hours, the update said. A fuel tanker also arrived at Port Canaveral on Tuesday afternoon and “the port will continue to receive fuel resupply.”
Clark reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau. Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas also contributed from Tallahassee.
Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, email@example.com