Last updated: 4 p.m. Thursday.
Floridians still trying to drive home after Hurricane Irma were met with welcome news Thursday morning: Interstate 75 through north-central Florida would not have to close after all.
A 36-mile stretch of the north-south thoroughfare had been under threat of being shut down because of the flooded Sante Fe River, which rose rapidly after historic flooding struck Jacksonville on Monday. The river’s rise to unprecedented levels was concerning enough that the Florida Department of Transportation had alerted residents Wednesday morning of a potential interstate closure.
But state emergency management officials in Tallahassee told their staff early Thursday that “it looks like we’re [in the] clear,” because the Sante Fe River had “stabilized” overnight where it flows under I-75 north of Alachua.
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“We were lucky with the Sante Fe on I-75,” Leo Lachat, the State Emergency Response Team chief, told personnel during an 8:30 a.m. briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center. “That was a blessing to us last night to not have to close that bridge.”
Lachat’s comments were overheard by a Herald/Times reporter listening through a glass wall that separates the EOC’s nerve center from an adjacent media workroom. State officials have barred media from the twice-daily briefings at the EOC before, during and after Irma.
FDOT officials confirmed Lachat’s message through a statement of their own at 10 a.m., announcing publicly to motorists that “I-75 will remain open.”
“Flood waters have been receding on the Sante Fe River,” FDOT said. “FDOT engineers and state meteorologists do not believe that the Santa Fe River will reach a level to make the interstate unsafe.”
The river flows under a bridge on I-75 near mile marker 408. If it had risen to a level that FDOT officials determined unsafe, they were prepared to close the interstate from I-10 in Lake City south to U.S. 441 in Alachua.
That would have diverted all drivers — including thousands of returning evacuees traveling back south — onto detours potentially hundreds of miles out of the way at a time when heavy traffic and limited availability of gas have already been ongoing frustrations.
Officials with FDOT and the U.S. Geological Survey were on-site to monitor the river and the bridge above it as the Sante Fe rose throughout Wednesday.
While Gov. Rick Scott’s office wouldn’t say what flood height would require FDOT to close the bridge, an official from the USGS had told the Herald/Times they were informed by FDOT the interstate would have had to be closed at a river level of 58 feet.
Early Thursday, the river rose to within a foot of FDOT’s reported cut-off for closing the interstate. National Weather Service data indicates the river near I-75 reached its crest at a height of 57.07 feet at around 7:15 a.m., after which point the water level gradually began to drop through the day.
According to the USGS, the Sante Fe River at O’Leno State Park — less than a mile to the west of I-75 and the nearest marker to the interstate — measured at 56.88 feet as of 3:15 p.m. Thursday.
The previous record-high crest for the Sante Fe River at that location was 54.44 feet in June 2012, according to the Weather Service. (Flood stage there is 43 feet.)
Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said if officials had to close the interstate, they would have done so with enough advanced warning to allow law enforcement to shut down travel lanes in both directions and let existing traffic move through before any flooding reached the bridge.
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Meanwhile, evacuees making their way back home had another reason to celebrate.
There was visibly less congestion on the state’s main interstates and Florida’s Turnpike into mid-afternoon Thursday — a departure from the clogged roadways that plagued motorists Tuesday and again Wednesday in the post-hurricane rush home.
Tuesday appeared to be the worst of the returning traffic to date, with Wednesday and Thursday bringing less and less congestion on the roads, based on observations of fl511.com, the state’s source for real-time traffic conditions.
But FDOT officials caution:“Travelers should be prepared for significant delays” through Saturday.
Traffic jams this week have most frequently appeared on stretches of southbound I-75, I-95 and the turnpike, westbound I-4 and eastbound I-10 — the main arteries back through Florida.
As of mid-afternoon, there were few reported areas of congestion in the state, as there had been all day.
A crash on southbound I-95 just northwest of St. Augustine caused a delay coming out of Jacksonville for much of the afternoon, and there were occasional backups during the day on the I-295 bypass around Jacksonville.
Driving down I-75 in Central Florida was slow at times through Ocala and again in Wildwood, where the interstate meets the turnpike. But that interchange can be a bad bottleneck even on normal days.
There was also some congestion reported through Orlando on westbound I-4 and on the southbound turnpike near Kissimmee in the early afternoon.
Another familiar bottleneck — the I-10/I-75 interchange in Lake City, about 45 miles south of the Georgia line — appeared to have no problems Thursday.
Typical morning rush-hour traffic seemed to surface in pockets of South Florida, Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando as Floridians began returning to work or school, offering the start of a return to normal routines.
But in contrast to earlier this week, there appeared to be no major backlogs that were visibly associated with evacuating traffic coming home.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the roads were clearest in the morning and became more crowded — with more logjams — by the evening. Not so on Thursday.
For traffic updates, Scott’s administration has heavily promoted two websites before and after the storm: fl511.com and GasBuddy, a privately run website and mobile app that offers a crowd-sourced tracker on which gas stations have fuel.
Roadway tolls remain suspended statewide. It’s unclear how soon the fees might be reinstated.
Florida Highway Patrol troopers continue to escort fuel tankers to gas stations statewide from main seaports, such as Port Everglades and Port Tampa Bay.
Addressing the post-hurricane fuel shortage has been a top priority for state emergency response officials, as has power restoration for the 2.3 million still without as of mid-afternoon Wednesday.
As for the Sante Fe River and the threat to I-75, officials at the state EOC first predicted Wednesday evening the river was “nearing crest.” While it still crept higher overnight, how fast it rose had slowed drastically compared to the rapid rise the river had on Monday and Tuesday, USGS data showed.
The Sante Fe climbed in other nearby areas enough by Wednesday evening, though, that portions of two main highways were forced to close.
Stretches of U.S. 41 and U.S. 27 north of High Springs — on the border of Alachua and Columbia counties — were blocked because of rising water under bridges that spanned the Sante Fe, state officials said.
Drivers were rerouted on local detours. Those roadblocks were still in effect Thursday, according to a state highway safety website.
Because of the potential need to close I-75, FDOT had 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 planned to recommend those routes as detours in the event the vulnerable stretch of I-75 needed 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 southwest path from Jacksonville to Tampa — was not recommended as a detour, because it’s used as a supply road to ferry fuel and other necessities into the state, Lewis said.
Clark reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau.