UPDATED: 9:45 a.m. Check back for updates.
Don’t be surprised to find yourself sitting in traffic jams or slow-moving traffic on Friday, if you’re one of the thousands heading north and fleeing Hurricane Irma’s wrath.
With the category 4 storm now projected to slam South Florida and make her way straight up the peninsula through Central Florida this weekend, time is quickly running out for residents to evacuate.
The state’s main thoroughfares northward — Interstates 95 and 75 and the Florida Turnpike — were already starting to fill up in some areas by early Friday and, if Thursday was any indication, the congestion will only amplify as the day wears on.
State officials are taking steps to ease the congestion by allowing motorists to use the shoulder as a travel lane on I-75 from the Wildwood interchange, where the Turnpike ends, north to the Georgia line. No roadways have switched to one-way traffic to further expedite the flow north.
State transportation officials told the Herald/Times that while vehicle counts are spiking, traffic is still “free-flowing” throughout the state and they’re not considering contraflows at this time.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles — which oversees the Florida Highway Patrol — advised motorists opting to use the shoulder to use caution and not exceed 40 miles per hour.
“If in doubt, DON’T do it,” the agency tweeted Friday morning.
As of 9 a.m., traffic flows out of South Florida and Southwest Florida remained in the green, according to fl511.com, the state’s public source of information on roadway conditions. Traffic counts showed Turnpike traffic in Miami-Dade was well below historical norms for Friday rush-hour.
But other parts of the state — West Palm Beach, Naples, Melbourne, rural Lake City where I-75 meets I-10 — were shouldering traffic flows several times higher than their usual.
Starting in Fort Pierce and northward on the Florida Turnpike, evacuating motorists can expect to see heavy congestion.
Traffic appeared to improve through the Orlando metro, but then the clogs resume — especially where the Turnpike ends and merges with I-75 in Wildwood.
On up through Ocala, Gainesville and beyond, traffic was reported slow during mid-morning hours. A crash on I-75 at MM 397 was causing a backlog near Alachua, the state reported as of 8:30 a.m.
Even north of Interstate 10 near the Georgia border, traffic was delayed — likely exacerbated by several unconfirmed crashes reported to the state through Waze, a navigation app that crowd sources traffic conditions from motorists.
Georgia transportation officials were also reporting slow patches northward to Atlanta — just past the Florida line, in Tifton and near Macon.
Georgia issued a traffic alert Friday morning advising that toll express lanes on I-75 — which can be found in and near Atlanta — would be flowing only north “due to extra heavy traffic on I-75 northbound coming up from Florida.” (Toll fees have been suspended for those lanes, the state said.)
Meanwhile, I-75 from South Florida via Alligator Alley west to Fort Myers and north through Naples and Tampa looked to be free and clear — except for some congestion reported near Brandon around 8:30 a.m.
Over on I-95 along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, there were pockets of trouble, but much of the interstate appeared to be moving normally. Congestion was reported near Daytona Beach and Palm Coast.
I-10 — which runs from Jacksonville west through the Panhandle — was also developing patches of heavy traffic by 9 a.m., particularly around Live Oak and Tallahassee.
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles tweeted Friday morning that FHP was “receiving multiple requests for assistance, deploying Troopers across state.”
Motorists looking for places they can gas up while evacuating can check GasBuddy, which offers a tracker on which gas stations have fuel. All service plazas on the Turnpike have fuel, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
Residents who are concerned about not being able to evacuate because of “fuel issues” can call the state transportation hotline at 1-800-955-5504.
If your vehicle dies on the road and has to be pulled off to the shoulder, do not leave it. Thursday morning, Florida Highway Patrol began towing cars left disabled or abandoned. Call *FHP if you need help.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday urged residents evacuating on crowded roadways to “please be patient” and to keep in mind that they need not necessarily travel far to be safe from Irma’s wrath.
“You do not need to evacuate out of the state or hundreds of miles away to stay safe. Find shelters in your county,” Scott advised.
The Turnpike is an especially attractive option for evacuees this week, because there are no tolls on Florida roads since those were lifted Tuesday evening because of the impending storm.
Traffic on the Turnpike and I-75 grew more congested throughout Thursday as more people took to the roads — a pattern that’s continuing again Friday.
One driver reported having to drive 23 hours to get from Fort Lauderdale to Huntsville, Ala., which Google says should be only a 12- to 15-hour trip.
Another motorist said he found reprieve from traffic by traveling in the dead of night Friday morning.
Florida transportation officials have issued an alert, via fl511, urging motorists to “use caution and plan ahead.”
Scott said Thursday that Florida Highway Patrol troopers would have an increased presence on major roadways to help usher traffic along. They were also ordered to escort fuel tankers south to hurry supplies toward gas stations that have run out.
The crowded roadways and the magnitude of the evacuations — which are expected to grow as Irma draws closer — have many wondering when the state might choose to make major arteries, like the Turnpike and I-75, into one-way roads to expedite northbound traffic.
Earlier Thursday, Scott would not comment on under what circumstances evacuation routes that might happen. He added that before that point, state transportation officials would first open shoulders to traffic — which has happened on I-75 north of Wildwood.
Florida Highway Patrol in Southwest Florida issued a statement around 8:30 a.m. noting I-75 travel lanes in the region “remain open and are flowing. There is no reversing of lanes.”
Scott said Florida officials are working with Google to provide real-time updates of road closures once those are needed before, during and after the storm.
Check back for updates.
Clark reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau.