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 US history, CNN senior meteorologist Dave Hennen said. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties combined have about 6 million people.
Monroe County, home to the Florida Keys, has already ordered mandatory evacuations. Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, issued a mandatory evacuation Wednesday for areas east of Federal Highway.
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.
But an evacuation of that scale could lead to miles-long 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.
Gov. Scott said he was aware of the potential for extensive gridlock and advised residents who are told to evacuate to do so immediately.
“Evacuation orders are going to be given in a timely manner so people have time to evacuate,” Scott said. “But if you wait, that’s when the problems are going to happen.”
Limited evacuation routes
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 further west. Those highways, as well as the Florida Turnpike, US-27 and other smaller roads that run north, will be “tremendously” clogged if the storm hits, Senator 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.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said that evacuations in Monroe County and parts of Miami Beach were already putting strain on highways headed north.
Indeed, Florida Department of Transportation cameras already showed heavy traffic on I-75 near Tampa midday Wednesday.
Nowhere to hide
As Harvey bore down on Texas, residents there could flee north, east or west to escape the storm. In South Florida, however, they can only go north.
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.
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