Evacuations were a mess before Hurricane Irma. Here’s how Florida plans to fix it.

It's slow going on I-75 in North Florida

Returning Floridians encountered heavy traffic as they made their way home after Hurricane Irma.
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Returning Floridians encountered heavy traffic as they made their way home after Hurricane Irma.

When thousands of Floridians tried to evacuate from Hurricane Irma last year, many packed their bags and cars and drove north along I-75 to get out of the path of the storm.

But traffic jams and fuel shortages slowed them down and fired them up. Drivers found insufficient fuel at gas stations along crowded evacuation routes, and gridlock prolonged drive times by hours. Some of the state’s north-south arteries resembled parking lots rather than highways, and state police had to escort some gas trucks to replenish fuel supplies ahead of the storm.

On Friday, after the release of two Florida Department of Transportation reports on ways to alleviate those delays and gas shortages, Gov. Rick Scott said he was directing the state transportation agency to implement fixes to improve the state’s hurricane evacuation routes.

“As Florida continues to recover from Hurricane Irma, the largest storm to impact our state in modern history, it is critically important that we continue to do all we can to make sure our state is fully prepared in the face of any potential disaster,” Scott said.

Read more: “Are you hitting the road to avoid Irma? Here’s where the traffic jams are”

Among the short-term improvements: expanding use of shoulder lanes along major interstates, identifying critical gas stations along evacuation routes and improving fuel service during emergencies. Other immediate fixes, which Scott directed should be completed by June or July, include updating the Florida 511 website to handle higher traffic, installing more cameras and signs on I-75 and expanding fuel reserves for first responders.

Scott had asked the state transportation agency to look into how to expedite traffic and fuel services in October, a month after Irma whipped through the state. He also specifically asked officials to examine how they might improve traffic at the I-75 interchange with Florida’s Turnpike in Wildwood and the border into Georgia.

Hurricane Irma Florida (1)
Traffic crawls along the northbound lanes of Florida’s Turnpike near its intersection with I-75 in Wildwood, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. Motorists were evacuating ahead of the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Irma. Stephen M. Dowell AP / Orlando Sentinel

Thousands of motorists were gridlocked along that route as they attempted to evacuate from the storm, prompting FDOT to open up the right shoulder lane. But the state did not order its largest highways to redirect southbound traffic north in “contraflow,” which would have opened up more lanes. The state said it did not reverse the traffic flow so that it could continue to send supplies south before the storm hit and move emergency vehicles where they would be needed.

Read more: “Traffic is already hell for returning Irma evacuees. Now, part of I-75 might close.”

The proposed fixes also include long-term projects, such as completing construction at the Turnpike interchange where it intersects with I-75 by 2019, and starting to widen Florida’s Turnpike between the Lake and Sumter county line, CR 468 interchange and I-75. Those improvements also call for studying how to manage emergency evacuations along the U.S. 19/98/27 route and working with Florida ports and fuel companies on how to store and distribute fuel.

The directive from the governor’s office coincides with hurricane response recommendations issued by a House of Representatives select committee earlier last month. The first of the 70-odd recommendations directs the Legislature to review the requested FDOT reports and several others address additional ways to improve evacuation routes.

Follow more of our reporting on Hurricane Irma

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