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Hurricane Evacuation On Florida’s Highways Under Construction

Congestion on I-95 northbound in Miami, FL, 2013. By B137 [CC0], via Wikimedia Common

By Catherine Welch

Florida’s population along the coast has boomed in the eleven years since the last hurricane hit. That combined with miles of construction on major highways could make evacuating ahead of a storm an even bigger headache this hurricane season.

When Hurricane Floyd came barreling down in 1999, millions of people fled Florida’s Atlantic coast. Traffic crawled along congested highways. Out of Jacksonville, cars moved at a snail’s pace along I-10.

Jim Judge was working in emergency management in Sumter County in 2004 when one storm after another hit the state. He remembers pulling up onto an overpass on I-75 and gazing down at the miles and miles of traffic

“As far as you could see to the south, as far as you could see to the north,” said Judge. “It was just absolutely clogged and traffic was barely even moving.”

Judge is now Volusia County’s Emergency Management Director. And not far from the Daytona International Speedway there’s construction on both I-95 and I-4. You bet that makes him nervous.

“I mean it’s hardly three or four times a week anymore that I-95 or I-4 is closed due to vehicle accidents,” said Judge.

Across Florida major roads like I-75, I-10 and I-95 are under construction … lined with orange barrels as roadwork shifts traffic along fewer lanes. Florida Department of Transportation Spokeswoman Jessica Ottaviano said requirements have been baked into contracts with construction companies to make sure the roads are as clear as possible ahead of a storm.

“Their goal and their job is going to be securing all the equipment whether it’s moving it off the corridor to the laid down yard, or if it can in deed stay in place if it’s secured like the crane arms secured and things like that,” said Ottaviano.

Larry LaHue is a senior planner with Volusia County’s Emergency Management. His peers across the state are well aware of all the roadwork and factored that in to their evacuation times. What worries him is a number he heard at a recent hurricane conference – that 40 percent of Florida’s population has never experience a tropical storm or hurricane.

“What every emergency manager is concerned about is when we order an evacuation,” said LaHue, “the people who haven’t experienced a tropical storm or hurricane aren’t going to understand or take it seriously and stay home.”

An evacuation plan on the books, but never used, is called contraflow. That’s where traffic on say I-95 would all flow in one direction. It takes a lot of resources to make sure everyone’s driving the same direction and one tiny mishap can grind traffic to a halt. Also, LaHue said a new study found that for all that work, contraflow only reduced evacuation times by an hour.

“So it seems like it’s a lot of effort and expense to increase clearance times by one hour,” he said. “So I think that contraflow might be revisited the next time there’s an evacuation.”

While planners fine tune evacuation routes, emergency managers like Volusia County’s Jim Judge stress the basics: get ready. Stock up on supplies, make a plan, and then spend a sunny day driving around to find a backroad to safer ground.

When asked about predictions for this year’s hurricane season, Judge shrugs.

“We’re going to treat them (predictions) all the same – we’re going to prepare, we’re going to train and we’re going to exercise as if we’re going to get hit hard, and that’s the only way we can operate,” said Judge.

And at the end of the day you just knock on wood.

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