Thursday, November 23, 2017
Politics

Irma evacuation triggers cancellation of Florida Gators' game

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TALLAHASSEE — The University of Florida on Thursday called off a scheduled football game on Saturday that would have put thousands of Gator fans on I-75 on the last day Floridians could use the highway as a hurricane evacuation route.

"As the hurricane's track has approached the state of Florida, it's become obvious that playing a football game is not the right thing to do," UF athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a statement posted on the university's web site. "The focus of our state and region needs to be on evacuation and relief efforts. There is a tremendous amount of stress currently on the roads of this state, and the availability of gas, water and other supplies are at critical levels. Playing a college football game Saturday would only add to that stress."

Stricklin's statement noted that I-75 "is a key statewide evacuation route."

UF's announcement came two hours after the Times/Herald reported that Gov. Rick Scott was discouraging fans from going to the game because it could disrupt evacuation efforts.

Shortly before UF scratched the game, a spokesman for Gov. Scott, McKinley Lewis, essentially told Gator fans to stay home.

"If you do not have to be on the road for an evacuation, you should not be on the road," said Lewis, speaking for the governor. "The first priority for our highways must be for evacuees."

The announcement also came shortly after a revised storm track showed the monster Category 5 hurricane possibly moving in a slightly more westerly direction.

I-75, a major route out of harm's way for Hurricane Irma evacuees, slices straight through the college town of Gainesville.

Kickoff was set for noon between the Gators and Northern Colorado, which stood to receive $625,000 for playing the game, according to the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune.

UF initially had moved the game from 7:30 p.m. Saturday to keep fans off the roads that evening.

Had the game been played, Gator fans would have used hotel rooms desperately needed by Irma's evacuees.

Because the two schools do not share a common open date, the game will not be rescheduled.

"We ask everyone to consider their own safety first and the safety of others making any kind of plans this weekend, because certainly that's the most important thing," Stricklin said Tuesday.

I-75 has been choked with traffic since Tuesday, and with the state running short of gasoline, Scott said he is working with federal agencies and law enforcement to get more supplies to Florida.

"I know many of you are stuck in traffic," Scott said at a storm briefing in West Palm Beach. "Please be patient."

As more people heed state and local evacuation orders, the traffic could only get worse, and Saturday is the last possible day that procrastinators can evacuate before Irma strikes.

UF's stadium, "The Swamp," seats about 92,000, and many of them would have been getting into their cars to drive home after the game ended Saturday afternoon, and some would be filling their cars with gas.

Some season ticket holders had no intention of going on Saturday. On a Gator football Facebook page, Nicki Morris was selling a ticket "super cheap!"

Florida State on Thursday was still planning to play its home opener at 12 noon Saturday in Tallahassee against Louisiana-Monroe.

State troopers who patrol I-75 also are a familiar sight on the sidelines at college football games. But not this weekend, a spokeswoman for the Florida Highway Patrol said.

"As Hurricane Irma approaches, no FHP troopers will be assisting with any details at university or professional football games," spokeswoman Beth Frady said Thursday.

Frady said the patrol is on 12-hour shifts, with all days off cancelled, to help with emergency preparedness and response.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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