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Clogged highways, crowded skies as Floridians flee Irma

Florida's primary highways going north were filled with heavy traffic Friday as scores of residents fled the areas of the state under hurricane warning.

In some parts of Interstate 75, near the Georgia state line, highway officials have opened up the shoulder lanes to drivers. In Georgia, southbound lanes of the 75 Express Lanes were reversed to increase the road capacity for the evacuees.

"Traffic is heavy, but flowing," said Florida Highway Patrol Spokesman Steve Gaskins.

With the window to escape the path of Irma in Florida rapidly closing, thousands of residents were on the road in what could be one of the largest mass evacuations in the country's history. Interstate 95 along the east coast and Interstate 75 near the west coast face significant gridlock.

By noon Friday, traffic in South Florida was moving smoothly north on Florida's Turnpike with some delays, a state highway spokesman said. Vehicles were also moving smoothly on I-95 and I-75 as drivers left the region.

The flow of I-75 through central and northern Florida was slower, which prompted the decision to open the shoulder lanes.

Georgia highway officials said the I-75 South Metro Express Lanes will remain northbound until further notice to handle heavier traffic as evacuees travel inland from coastal Georgia and Florida. Tolls are also being waived starting Friday, and lanes will be open to all vehicles whether they carry the state's toll pass or not.

A driver gave this account of traffic on the highway: I was trapped in it. I left Jupiter at 1:30 a.m. Friday, taking what is usually a two-hour drive to my family's home in Kissimmee, south of Orlando. I thought I was being cagey. If I left in the early morning hours, I might beat some of the punishing daytime traffic. I thought wrong.

Friday's drive time: Eight hours.

If you can call it driving. Often, the top speed on the 70 mph freeway was a stop-and-start 5 mph. You kept wondering if there was an accident that drivers were rubbernecking, eventually realizing that it was just the narrow two-lane roadway was severely overloaded.

As more South Florida counties issue mandatory evacuation notices, the crush of vehicles is likely to get worse. Early Friday, there was at least a half-mile long line at the Yeehaw Junction exit as well as the entrance lanes to the Canoe Creek plaza and gas station. State troopers were intermittently blocking off the entrance to gas pumps at the Fort Drum turnpike plaza, not because of shortages but to keep turnpike lanes from backing up. Electric signs urged drivers to keep going to the next plaza.

Meanwhile, the sides of Florida's Turnpike became a makeshift rest stop and waystation for Irma refugees. At least 50-100 vehicles were pulled off in grass and median strips between Fort Pierce and Yeehaw Junction.

A woman stood taking a selfie of the endless stream of red taillights that curved through the night. Two strangers met by the side of the road, exchanging smiles and shaking hands. One young woman sat on top of her car trunk, wrapped in a pink blanket with her dog. Backs of vans and SUVS were open, with boxes and suitcases spilling out. People were sleeping in their vehicles before continuing north. One woman had her car door open, doing leg stretches.

Some people tried to speed on the roadside or fruitlessly jockeyed for position by switching lanes. But most seemed to accept that this was the price for getting out of Irma's way.

And it didn't appear that any traffic relief was likely as the day continued.

As I pulled off at the Kissimmee exit, I glanced in my rear view mirror. The caravan of cars was still coming.

Several crashes caused delays Friday. But highway patrols were clearing up wrecks and stranded cars off the roadways as quickly as possible.

"We will continue to assist stranded motorists and clear crashes (as soon as possible) so there is no interruptions in the flow of traffic," said Lt. Yosdany Veloz, a spokesman with Florida Highway Patrol in South Florida.

State highway police continued to escort tanker trucks delivering fuel. At a news conference, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, said the delivery of fuel was critical to get residents to evacuate, and he urged gas stations to stay open as long as possible.

Forecasters said Irma will be near South Florida by Sunday morning and could potentially make landfall somewhere in the state. The Capital Weather Gang said, "It's still uncertain whether the southwest or southeast coast will catch the storm's most destructive brunt, or somewhere in between."

Meanwhile, Fort Laudardale International Airport said it would be closed Saturday and Sunday. The airport's garages are full, officials said, urging travelers with flights out Friday to find another location where to secure their vehicles.

For many families in South Florida and Georgia, evacuating for a hurricane has become somewhat of an ordinary routine. Dealing with last-minute airfare, pet-friendly accommodations and overwhelming lines for gas is par for the course.

But as Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, barrels toward the mainland of the United States, some residents are evacuating more quickly than ever. Searches for "where to evacuate from Irma" and "where to go for Hurricane Irma" have been trending on Google.

By Thursday afternoon, airlines had canceled 4,000 flights to and from airports in the hurricane's path. Airbnb has activated its Disaster Response Program for counties in Northern Florida and southern Georgia in which hosts can open their homes up to evacuees free.

"As soon as I went outside, I realized how panicked people were," Sara Milrad said of the scene at the University of Miami in Coral Gables on Tuesday afternoon. The campus will be evacuated Friday.

Milrad was urged by her colleagues to evacuate immediately and is now in Baltimore. "Usually everyone is fairly dismissive about these storms," she said. "But this was different. There was an urgency of 'if you can get out, you should get out.'"

As Floridians looked for safe evacuation routes, demand for flights out of Florida's main airports skyrocketed. On Twitter, many customers accused airlines of price-gouging as one-way tickets out of Florida cost upward of $1,000.

But George Hobica, founder of the site Airfarewatchdog, said he did not think airlines were price-gouging, not consciously at least. "They are afraid of bad publicity," he said. "There are times when there's only one seat left on a plane and that will end up being thousands of dollars, but that's directed at business travelers who the airlines assume will travel at any cost."

By Thursday afternoon, JetBlue, American Airlines, United and Delta had all capped their one-way ticket prices out of Florida ahead of the hurricane's arrival, although there were still reports of price fluctuations despite the caps.

Some airlines and cruise lines have left travelers in limbo. While all cruises out of Florida set to leave Friday were canceled, some cruises that scheduled to sail from Central and South Florida remain on course to depart over the weekend. Cruise companies are urging customers to check in daily as conditions evolve.

As soon as Hurricane Irma appeared on the radar, Dave Kartunen, a Savannah, Georgia, resident, booked a hotel room 50 miles inland. "Hurricane planning has taken a certain level of importance in my family," he said. Kartunen, a father of two, has post-traumatic stress disorder from covering Hurricane Katrina as a news anchor.

"Evacuating is sort of a no good deed goes unpunished," he said. "You don't want to drive too far because it's like going on a run – for every mile you go, you're going to have to go back. Every mile is going to be painful."

Eduardo Del Carmen, a Miami resident, decided to evacuate as well, comparing Hurricane Irma to Hurricane Andrew, the last Category 5 storm to hit the United States, in 1992. His family evacuated for Hurricane Andrew and was displaced for months.

"You can't play around too much with a storm like this, so I think we may be waking up at 5 a.m. tomorrow to drive to Tampa," Del Carmen said. "Last night was our first good night of sleep in a while, knowing we were ready to go. We have a place to stay and gas in our car."

For all those who can evacuate by road or air, many cannot because of physical or financial constraints.

"We're lucky; we have the mobility," Kartunen said. "I'm terrified for the people that no one cares about, those that don't have the ability to make the decisions that we do."

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