The Florida Turnpike, Interstate 95 and Interstate 75 became increasingly clogged with traffic — with tens of thousands of Miami-Dade and Monroe County residents under evacuation orders and thousands more people across the state fleeing in anticipation of the category 5 storm's arrival this weekend.
Traffic woes escalated into central and northern Florida, as the crowds moved northward and as the day wore on.
While the higher speed limits, tolls and fewer exits make the Turnpike the usually zippier choice for heading north, apparently the combination of gas and no tolls slowed the Turnpike down to Interstate 95 speed in some areas.
By early evening, the Turnpike continued to be jammed from Palm Beach County through Orlando with few stretches of reprieve. The congestion continued up the Turnpike onto I-75 through Ocala, Gainesville and even Lake City at the I-10 interchange.
State transportation data after 4 p.m. indicated the worst delays were near Jupiter, Stuart, Port St. Lucie, Fort Pierce, from before Yeehaw Junction into Kissimmee, through the Orlando metro and from south of Howey-In-The-Hills into the Wildwood interchange where the Turnpike ends and intersects with I-75.
I-95 seemed to have fewer issues. Traffic was reported as moving slowly in pockets, such as near Vero Beach, Daytona Beach and near Jacksonville.
I-75 out of Miami via Alligator Alley had no reported incidents or congestion by early evening. Traffic jams on I-75 began north of Tampa Bay near Bushnell and continued into northern Florida.
Even some back roads were bogged down — such U.S. 27, which starts as Northwest 36th Street in Miami and snakes north and across the state through Tallahassee.•▪on the Turnpike in Palm Beach County from Boynton Beach Boulevard to beyond Okeechobee Boulevard.
Traffic counts released by FDOT Thursday evening showed many main roadways and interstates — particularly in rural areas of north Florida — were seeing double or even triple their normal flow of traffic as of 3 p.m..
In South Florida, I-75 westbound in Broward County saw 2,000 vehicles pass through at that hour, compared to the usual 700 or 800.
Stretches of U.S. 27 through Palm Beach County, near South Bay, and through Highlands County, northwest of Lake Okeechobee, each saw more than 1,000 vehicles pass by in that time when the roadway usually deals with fewer than 300.
By comparison, the Turnpike in Miami-Dade County was seeing its normal traffic flow of about 4,000 vehicles.
Despite South Florida traffic normally being a nightmare, no major delays were reported during the day in Miami-Dade, Broward or Monroe counties, which had evacuation orders underway.
In acknowledging the crammed roadways, Florida Gov. Rick Scott noted in briefings throughout the day that the Florida Department of Transportation has video cameras on every major roadway to monitor traffic flows. He said officials are "clearing traffic issues in real time to keep people moving."
"I know many of you are in traffic. I know it's frustrating but please be patient," Scott said in West Palm Beach, but he advised residents also: "You do not need to evacuate out of the state or hundreds of miles away to stay safe. Find shelters in your county."
Around 3 p.m., Scott announced that more Florida Highway Patrol troopers had been put on the roads to assist with traffic control but he didn't specify a number.
Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the state Emergency Operations Center, could not tell the Times/Herald how many additional troopers were assisting but he said that all 1,700 in the Patrol were called in to work, with administrative leave and vacation time canceled.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Dick Kane did not return repeated requests from the Times/Herald on Thursday seeking additional information about traffic problems, recommended evacuation routes for residents or how long motorists should expect delays.
Neither the EOC, the governor's office nor the DOT would make an official available for comment outside of the press conferences Scott himself held around the state.
All tolls have been suspended in Florida because of the impending storm. Florida state and local officials, including Scott, have urged residents who want to evacuate to not delay.
If your car conks out 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.
Real-time traffic updates are available from the state at fl511.com, the state's only public source of information on roadway conditions.
The crowded roadways and the magnitude of the evacuations — which could grow as Irma draws closer — have many wondering when the state might choose to make major arteries, like the Turnpike, into one-way roads to expedite northbound traffic.
Earlier Thursday, Scott would not comment on under what circumstances evacuation routes that might happen. However, he said, before that point, state transportation officials would first open shoulders to traffic. That order hasn't been given yet.
Fuel supplies continued to run low around the state, as state officials scrambled to address the pre-hurricane demand. GasBuddy offers a tracker to find out which gas stations have fuel, so drivers know where they can gas up.
In the mean time, don't be surprised if you see caravans of law enforcement escorting fuel tankers. Scott said Thursday morning that's one of the measures the state has taken to get fuel supplies to where they're needed most as shortages are reported throughout the state.
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, he said.
Scott said the state is working with Google to provide real-time updates of road closures once those are needed before, during and after the storm.
Five fuel vessels unloaded petroleum supplies at Port Tampa Bay Wednesday, which is helping keep the fuel supply flowing in the Central Florida area.
The port's gantry cranes are operational and officials do not anticipate being unable to unload containers of fuel and other supplies through the storm unless the U.S. Coast Guard gives notice to terminate operations, according to a press release.
Port Tampa Bay is preparing for gale force winds of up to 54 mph in the Tampa Bay area within the next 72 hours. Petroleum that comes into Port Tampa Bay services gas stations around the Central Florida area, from Tampa Bay to Orlando. This also includes fuel for local airports.
The Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas ship, which is based at Port Tampa Bay, has changed its itinerary for a voyage this week due to Hurricane Irma, a press release said. The ship was originally scheduled to arrive on Sept. 9 at Port Tampa Bay but will now arrive mid-morning on Sept. 8. Passengers will have the option to leave the ship a day early or stay on the ship while it's in port in Tampa. No new passengers will be able to board as the Saturday sailing has been cancelled. The Carnival cruise ship, Paradise, is scheduled to depart to Cuba on Thursday from Tampa, but Carnival is still evaluating the ability to call on Havana as scheduled. Passengers will be notified of any changes.
Times staff writer Justine Griffin contributed to this story.