WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It was 3:30 a.m. when the Orellano family of Lantana piled into their Prius and headed off into the darkness away from the menacing path of Hurricane Irma.
“We just wanted to get the heck out of town,” Shashanna Orellano said.
They were hardly alone. On major highways and on two-lane back roads, hundreds of thousands of motorists continued a mass exodus from South Florida today, accepting the tension of traffic backups and cars full of screaming kids in exchange for safety from an approaching Category 5 storm.
“It’s kind of like gambling. I’d rather risk leaving and taking forever on the roads than staying and getting hurt,” said Angie Pineda Clarke of Lake Worth, who also left at 3:30 a.m. on a journey to a relative’s house in Atlanta.
Clarke’s husband, Cody, drove their Ford Fusion while she tended to their two kids, ages 1 and 5, through stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 75. Her sister and parents followed them in a separate car. It took them nearly nine hours to reach Gainesville.
“The traffic comes in waves,” Angie said. “You get like 15 minutes of cars moving and then you just stop for 15 minutes.”
Delays were reported northbound on Florida’s Turnpike between mile markers 85 and 101 in Palm Beach County, mile markers 123-143 in Martin County and 216-251 in Osceola County, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
“Evacuations are not meant to be convenient. They’re meant to keep you safe,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said today during a visit to the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center.
Other delays have been reported near service plazas, where lines for fuel pumps sometimes stretched onto the turnpike’s far left lane leading to the entrance ramps. Florida Highway Patrol troopers and DOT crews are directing traffic at the plazas.
“It’s been fairly orderly, as orderly as it can be,” said Sgt. Mark Wysocky, an FHP spokesman, who said extra troopers, road rangers and wreckers have been added to help keep traffic flowing.
“I would just ask people to be cautious, especially as you approach services plazas in case traffic stretches out into the lanes.”
Only vehicles are allowed to fuel, meaning no one will be permitted to fill other containers.
“The goal is to get drivers back on the road, as soon as possible,” he said.
Troopers started working 12-hour shifts today to help keep traffic flowing north ahead of a storm that’s projected to roll the entire length of the Florida peninsula.
“It’s basically all hands on deck,” Wysocky said. “I know there were evacuations for (Hurricane) Andrew (in 1992) but I don’t think we’ve seen one like this, not to this point where (Irma) may go through the whole state.”
The mass exodus has led to a rise in disabled and abandoned vehicles, creating problems for emergency workers using the shoulders to reach crash victims and other roadway issues. Troopers started ordering crews to tow abandoned vehicles.
On limited sections of some Florida highways, DOT officials allow motorists to drive on the shoulders of roads instead of making all lanes one way, which is complicated, requires extra manpower and can be dangerous.
On Florida’s Turnpike, all lanes could be converted to one-way from mile marker 88 in Boynton Beach to mile marker 254 near the Orlando area — because there are fewer access points along that stretch and less risk of danger. For now, there are no plans to convert the southbound lanes into additional northbound lanes, a decision that would be made by Scott.
At 1:30 p.m., the Welch family arrived at their destination, a relative’s house in Hayesville, North Carolina, 20 hours after their Honda Odyssey left their home in Lake Worth.
It’s normally an 11-hour drive, Sue Welch said, but she wasn’t complaining.
“It was stop and go but I expected that and we’ve been exercising patience,” she said. “We got off the main road before Atlanta and drove on back roads because of the traffic and it was more enjoyable on the winding roads.”
Many motorists like Clarke documented their highway journeys on social media, alerting friends about traffic conditions.
Other motorists have been using websites and apps to avoid traffic.
“We (got) around two major delays, including one that detoured us in Port St. Lucie (using an app). We missed the traffic. Mission accomplished,” said Jesse Cohen, a Boca Raton attorney who drove his wife and son to St. Augustine.
Welch said it was an odd experience driving clogged northbound lanes while the southbound lanes were nearly empty except for handfuls of cars.
“I did see flatbed semitrucks with plywood heading south,” she said.
Some motorists, frustrated with the slow pace and speeds rarely exceeding 35 mph, decided to turn west out of Florida toward destinations such as Mississippi. But other drivers said the experience hasn’t been terrible.
“There’s been periods of stop and go, but nothing really like parking lot situations,” said Orellano, whose husband, Gerardo, was driving the family to Atlanta. Their 2-year-old son Aaron has passed time greeting vehicles in other lanes.
“He keeps waving to people,” she said.
Laura Ammerman checked into a hotel in Alpharetta, Georgia, to take a well-deserved nap after a 16-hour drive from Palm Beach County.
“There were parts that were pretty bad. Lots of slow traffic but we were able to get off and go around it on back roads,” she said. “Honestly, it could have been a lot worse.”