The Slatest

Florida Highways Gridlocked by Masses of Evacuees Ahead of Hurricane Irma

A steady stream of traffic heads north on Overseas Highway as mandatory evacuations continue in Monroe County.

Marc Serota/Getty Images

This post has been updated as news develops.

With Hurricane Irma expected to make landfall and devastate Florida’s east coast on Sunday, tens of thousands of people are attempting to leave the area through northbound highways, causing severe gridlock. The Florida Turnpike and Interstates 95 and 75, the main roads out of the state, have been jammed throughout the week. Traffic counts were tripled in certain areas on Wednesday, quadrupled on Thursday, and expected to get worse on Friday.

Highway officials are now allowing drivers to use shoulder lanes to ease some of the congestion, but have not yet switched any highways to one-way traffic, because vehicles still need southbound routes to bring supplies and gas to shelters. Fuel shortages are causing hours-long lines at gas stations. The highway patrol has been escorting supply tankers to refueling sites in order to accommodate the growing demand.

Mandatory evacuations have been issued for over half a million people in high-risk areas of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Brevard, and Monroe counties, contributing to crowding of the roadways. Gov. Rick Scott will likely announce even more evacuations on Friday. In preparation for Tropical Storm Harvey, Texas officials decided not to require anyone to evacuate because of traffic concerns.

The National Hurricane Center downgraded Irma from a Category 5 to a Category 4 Friday morning, because its winds have slowed from 185 mph to 150 mph. However, the more recently formed Hurricane Jose was upgraded to Category 4 on Friday and is on track to hit the Caribbean islands Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, St. Martin, and St. Barthélemy, which are already heavily damaged by Irma’s impact earlier in the week.

The death count from Irma on the islands has risen to at least 20 people, nine of whom were in the French Caribbean. Three were killed in Puerto Rico and four in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This number will likely continue to climb as first responders reach the worst-ravaged areas. Early on Friday the hurricane also hit the Turks and Caicos with 20-foot waves and scraped the northern coast of Cuba, where thousands of tourists have been evacuated. Irma is on its way through the Bahamas as of Friday afternoon.

The BBC was the first international broadcaster to send reporters to Barbuda, likely the hardest-hit island, after the storm had passed. Ninety-five percent of its structures were destroyed or damaged according to officials. Reporter Laura Bicker and her team have been shooting footage of rural landscapes in ruin and crumbling neighborhoods, in addition to interviews with residents trying to evacuate before Hurricane Jose arrives, which you can see on her Twitter and on the BBC’s website. “We’re not coping. We’re definitely not coping. Everybody will tell you the same,” Rose Brooks, a survivor of the hurricane, tells Bicker in one especially harrowing exchange. “We can’t help each other, because everybody needs help.”