Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

The Long Road Home: Millions of Floridians await return

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TALLAHASSEE — The millions of Floridians who are part of the largest evacuation in U.S. history are already itching to go home as Florida mobilizes a post-Irma mass recovery effort of troops, trucks, boats and volunteers from Key West to Jacksonville.

Some evacuees fled hundreds of miles to escape the storm, and those crowds will soon come flooding back to the state.

They're likely to be met with traffic delays, a fuel shortage, debris cleanup and possibly blocked access to their communities — which is why state and local officials have a singular message: Don't try to go home yet.

"Don't think just because this thing passed you can run home," Gov. Rick Scott said at an afternoon briefing in Opa-Locka. "We've got downed powerlines across the state. Roads that are impassable all over this state. We have debris all over this state."

The mounting impatience of evacuees suffering from cabin fever, as the first wave of help gets on the roads, could present a monstrous challenge for Scott.

The governor boarded a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft Monday to see firsthand the extent of Irma's wrath in the Florida Keys, as millions of residents were eager to do the same thing in their neighborhoods.

"Wait for direction from local officials before returning to evacuated areas," Scott tweeted. "Storm impacts can continue well after the center passes."

Bud and Beth Haidet fled Fort Myers on Friday and took refuge at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Tallahassee, a few blocks from the Capitol. They were in a good mood Monday because hot coffee was flowing in the hotel lobby.

They're relieved that Irma wasn't much worse, and now they want to go home.

"We're ready to get back," said Bud Haidet, a retired athletic director at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "We have things in the refrigerator and freezer. We left really quickly."

Beth Haidet said her biggest worry was whether she could get gasoline on Interstate 75 for the more than six-hour drive home. One of the state's biggest tasks is for fuel tanker trucks to replenish gas pumps all over the state, but that can't happen until the seaports are open for business.

Rising floodwaters pose a major threat to people trying to get home via Interstate 10 and I-95 in northeast Florida.

Storm surge swelled the St. Johns River and its tributaries to historic levels, flooding downtown Jacksonville streets and low-lying neighborhoods and blocking travel on the two interstates. Two of the river city's main bridges were closed until further notice.

Law enforcement officials across the state urged patience and said the roads need to be clear for emergency vehicles. The extent of the damage is not yet known; schools, state universities and state parks are closed; and more than 200,000 people were still in emergency storm shelters Monday.

"We understand your frustration. We just ask that you be patient with us," said Capt. J.R. Hutchinson of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

"Stay off the roads!" tweeted a Florida Highway Patrol trooper at Interstate 4 in Orlando.

Even where roads are passable, the state does not yet want evacuees even asking when they can go home.

"We're telling people it's a little premature to be asking that question," said spokeswoman Beth Frady of the Florida Highway Patrol. She urged evacuees to contact their local law enforcement authorities — in the Haidets' case, the Lee County sheriff's office — to check on local road conditions.

"We're trying to encourage people to stay off the roads. Conditions are just now being assessed," Frady said, noting that I-10 east of I-75 in Lake City was closed in both directions Monday morning because of flooding.

The flooding began when Irma veered east as it roared up the state and led to the National Weather Service in Tallahassee issuing flash flood warnings for the area. By late morning, the flooding had exceeded the city's all-time record, previously set in 1964 by Hurricane Dora.

State troopers cleared the roads into Port Everglades and the Port of Tampa to allow fuel truck to access gas to replenish supplies at gas stations along the evacuation routes.

The first tentative signs of a return to the rhythm of everyday life began appearing Monday. "Waffle House is open," tweeted Steve Schale, a Tallahassee political strategist. "And packed."

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Kristen Clark contributed. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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