MIAMI — Floridians began a mass exodus on Thursday as Hurricane Irma, the powerful Category 4 storm, plowed through the Caribbean toward the Sunshine State.
Thousands of cars headed north, causing interstate backups and slowdowns. Drivers waited for hours at gas stations, some of which ran out of fuel. Travelers stood in line for hours at airports.
Based on Irma’s projected path, which includes Florida’s heavily populated eastern coast, the enormous storm could create one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history.
Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties combined have about 6 million people.
People should get out now, Gov. Rick Scott warned at a Thursday news conference. If they wait until Saturday or Sunday, when high winds and rain are expected to lash south Florida, it will be too late.
“We cannot save you when the storm starts,” Scott said. “So if you are in an evacuation zone and you need help, you need to tell us now.”
The National Hurricane Center issued hurricane and storm surge warnings for South Florida on Thursday night.
“You do not want to leave on Saturday, driving through Florida with tropical storm force winds,” meteorologist Tom Sater said.
He said the latest Floridians should evacuate is Friday morning.
Roseanne Lesack, her husband and three children were among the evacuees.
They left Boca Raton on Wednesday and headed to Atlanta to stay with friends, she said. After encountering slow traffic, the family spent the night at a motel in Orlando and continued north Thursday morning, Lesack said.
“What should have been another six- or seven-hour travel experience is coming up on 12 hours,” she said Thursday night while about 35 miles south of Atlanta.
“It has been slow. Right now we’re going about 20 mph. … It’s just three lanes of red bumper lights.”
Last year, the family stayed with friends in Florida and rode out Hurricane Matthew, she said. Lesack is glad they decided not to chance it this year.
“Now there are a lot of people who are really nervous about staying but don’t feel like they can get out,” Lesack said.
In Florida, mandatory evacuations orders included parts of Miami-Dade County, Broward County east of U.S. 1, Palm Beach County, low-lying parts of Brevard County, and Monroe County, home to the Florida Keys.
More than 30,000 people evacuated Monroe County alone, Scott said.
Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi stressed to residents in the Keys they need to heed the evacuation order and leave.
All hospitals would be closed and ambulances gone as of Friday morning, including air ambulances, he said.
“You might as well leave now while you have a chance because when you dial 911 — you will not get an answer,” he said.
The Florida Department of Transportation released traffic counts showing extremely heavy traffic on Thursday, such as 4,000 vehicles on Interstate 75 northbound in Lake City, compared to a norm of 1,000.
About 1,800 vehicles traveled on I-75 in Collier County, compared to a norm of 600. Other roads showed smaller increases.
Though nobody knows exactly where Irma will make landfall, the governors of Georgia and South Carolina decided not to take any chances. They ordered mandatory evacuations of low-lying coastal areas around Savannah and Charleston.
Other eastern Florida population centers could also see similar evacuations soon, depending on the path of the hurricane, which is expected to near Miami on Sunday.
“Look at the size of this storm,” Scott said Thursday. “It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of what coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate. Floridians on the west coast cannot be complacent.”
Fuel availability is a major problem. About half the gas stations were open in Miami.
At a Marathon gas station in Miami, a line of cars wrapped around the corner. Two police officers on duty kept drivers in line and police tape kept them from entering the station the wrong way.
Drivers had to wait at least an hour for fuel.
In a news release, Scott said he’s taking steps to have more fuel delivered. Contractors have come up with 1.5 million gallons to deliver so far, he said. State police will escort fuel trucks heading to gas stations on evacuation routes.
About 300,000 barrels of fuel were being unloaded from a ship in Tampa to resupply gas stations. A fuel ship from Mississippi was heading to the Port of Tampa and will be given a military escort, he said.
Scott also said he is suspending toll collections for the duration of the storm.
One issue with a mass evacuation is that Florida relies on two primary highways that go north and south: I-95 along the east coast and I-75 farther west.
Those highways, as well as the Florida Turnpike, U.S. 27 and other smaller roads that run north will be “tremendously” clogged if the storm hits, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said.
“If this monster comes right up the peninsula of Florida, you’re gonna have a mass out-migration from the south to the north, and it’s gonna clog the roads something tremendously,” Nelson said. “Therefore, if you are going to evacuate, once the evacuation order is given, don’t wait around.”
An evacuation could lead to mileslong gridlock, as happened with attempted mass evacuations during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Rita in 2005.
When Hurricane Harvey began threatening southeast Texas about two weeks ago, Houston officials decided not to issue voluntary or mandatory evacuations, partly because of memories of those problems.
Hurricane Irma’s cone of potential landfall currently includes the entire state of Florida, meaning that residents may not be able to flee to the state’s Gulf Coast to avoid its wrath. Going north is the best choice.
Florida is relatively narrow. Fort Lauderdale on the east coast and Naples on the west coast are separated by just more than 100 miles.
Even in the central part of the state, only 130 miles separate Clearwater on the west coast from Melbourne on the east coast.
For comparison, tropical storm-force winds from Irma cover over 65,000 square miles — about the size of the entire state.