When Hurricane Irma threatened the entire Florida peninsula last month, millions fled their homes to seek refuge elsewhere — with untold thousands opting for a long trek northward out of Florida and into Georgia via Interstate 75.
Drivers complained of lengthy delays, traffic jams and a lack of basic services — such as open bathrooms and gas stations stocked with fuel — along what is one of only a few primary north-south evacuation routes in the state.
A month after Irma blew threw, Gov. Rick Scott is now asking state transportation officials to explore ways to better expedite the outbound traffic next time.
He announced Thursday that he wants the Florida Department of Transportation to specifically look at ways the state could speed up the section of northbound I-75 from the interchange in Wildwood — where the Turnpike merges with the interstate — to the Florida-Georgia line.
The 144-mile stretch takes about 2 hours to drive under normal circumstances, but during the Irma evacuation, motorists reported being stuck for hours in gridlock.
FDOT allowed drivers to use the right shoulder as a way to ease the traffic jams, but many at the time complained that Scott didn’t order the interstate to be routed one-way so evacuees could be ushered north even faster. Other states — such as Georgia prior to Irma and Louisiana prior to Hurricane Katrina — have used the process of “contraflow” in their evacuations.
Scott had dismissed the possibility, saying the southbound routes needed to remain open to ferry utility trucks, fuel and other supplies to lower parts of the state before the storm hit. His office also noted the manpower it would require of local law enforcement to monitor entrance and exit ramps.
In explaining his request of FDOT, Scott on Thursday again defended how his administration handled the evacuation.
“In preparation for Hurricane Irma, the state worked closely with local emergency management, transportation and law enforcement partners to successfully oversee the largest evacuation in U.S. history,” Scott said in a statement. “Anytime a natural disaster threatens our state, we must do all we can to ensure Floridians can evacuate safely. That is why today, I am directing FDOT and their traffic experts to begin a comprehensive evaluation on ways to help expedite evacuation routes on I-75 from Wildwood to the Florida-Georgia border.”
Scott continued: “This roadway is a major evacuation route, and it is crucial that residents and visitors can quickly and safely travel in this area during emergencies. We will continue to work with all our partners to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure our state is fully prepared for all emergencies so we can keep our families and visitors safe.”
A report of FDOT’s recommendations to Scott is due in January.
The other north-south arteries used as primary evacuation routes are the Florida Turnpike out of South Florida and Interstate 95 near the Atlantic Coast.