The millions of Floridians who are part of the largest evacuation in U.S. history are already itching to go home as Florida mobilizes a post-Irma mass recovery effort of troops, trucks, boats and volunteers from Key West to Jacksonville.
The mounting impatience of evacuees suffering from cabin fever, as the first wave of help gets on the roads, could present a monstrous challenge for Gov. Rick Scott.
The governor boarded a Coast Guard C-130 Monday to see first-hand the extent of Irma’s wrath in the Florida Keys, as millions of residents were eager to do the same thing in their neighborhoods.
“Wait for direction from local officials before returning to evacuated areas,” Scott tweeted. “Storm impacts can continue well after the center passes.”
Bud and Beth Haidet fled Fort Myers last Friday and took refuge at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Tallahassee, a few blocks from the state capital. They were in a good mood Monday because hot coffee was flowing in the hotel lobby.
They’re relieved that Irma wasn’t much worse, and now they want to go home.
“We’re ready to get back,” said Bud Haidet, a retired athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “We have things in the refrigerator and freezer. We left really quickly.”
Beth Haidet said her biggest worry was whether they could get gasoline on Interstate 75 for the more than six-hour drive home. One of the state’s biggest tasks is for fuel tanker trucks to replenish gas pumps all over the state, but that can’t happen until the seaports are open for business.
As of mid-afternoon Monday, state officials said there was fuel at only one service plaza on Florida’s Turnpike, and that was a limited amount at Fort Drum in Central Florida at mile marker 184.
Rising flood waters pose a major threat to people trying to get home via Interstates 10 and 95 in northeast Florida.
In Jacksonville, storm surge swelled the St. Johns River and its tributaries to historic levels, flooding downtown streets and low-lying neighborhoods and blocking travel on the two interstates. Two of the river city’s main bridges were closed until further notice.
Mayor Lenny Curry, who guided Jacksonville through Hurricane Matthew last October, warned residents in affected areas that Monday’s high tides could increase flood waters by 4 to 6 feet.
“Seeing people playing in water,” Curry tweeted. “Please don’t. High tide and more flooding coming.”
Law enforcement officials across the state urged patience, and said the roads need to be clear for emergency vehicles. The extent of the damage is not yet known; schools, state universities and state parks are closed; and more than 200,000 people were still in emergency storm shelters Monday.
“We understand your frustration. We just ask that you be patient with us,” said Capt. J.R. Hutchinson of the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.
“Stay off the roads!” tweeted a Florida Highway Patrol trooper at Interstate 4 in Orlando.
Even where roads are passable, the state does not yet want evacuees even asking when they can go home.
“We’re telling people it’s a little premature to be asking that question,” said spokeswoman Beth Frady of the Florida Highway Patrol. She urged evacuees to contact their local law enforcement authorities — in the Haidets’ case, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office — to check on road conditions back home.
“We’re trying to encourage people to stay off the roads. Conditions are just now being assessed,” Frady said, noting that I-10 east of I-75 in Lake City was closed in both directions Monday morning because of flooding.
The flooding began when Irma veered east as it roared up the state and led to the National Weather Service to issue flash flood warnings for the Jacksonville area. By late morning, the flooding had exceeded the city’s all-time record, previously set in 1964 by Hurricane Dora.
Despite the record amount of water, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Director Nick Wiley said: “This is not Houston.”
Wiley deployed three reconnaissance teams to survey the flooded Jacksonville neighborhoods of San Marco, Riverside and Black Creek with four-wheel drive vehicles and ATVs.
He said the crews will try to work quickly to determine if anyone appears trapped or in need of assistance in their homes.
The effort is one of several reconnaissance and rescue efforts around the state as Florida begins its recovery from the massive storm.
Opening the ports is the first priority, Wiley said, and clearing waterways for commercial traffic to bring in fuel and supplies.
State troopers cleared the roads into Port Everglades and the Port of Tampa to allow fuel trucks to access gas to replenish gas stations along the evacuation routes.
The first tentative signs of a return to the rhythm of everyday life began appearing Monday. “Waffle House is open,” tweeted Steve Schale, a Tallahassee political strategist. “And packed.”
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @stevebousquet.