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1 year later: Will Florida's next major evacuation flow smoother than Hurricane Irma's?

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
September 13, 2018, 9:21:42 AM EDT

Following last year's largest-ever U.S. evacuation that burdened Florida residents with blocked roads, traffic jams and gas shortages, officials responded and initiated plans to improve the process.

Irma prompted the largest evacuation in U.S. history, taking 7 million people out of their homes. More than 30 percent of Florida's entire population was asked to evacuate.

Before and after Hurricane Irma, highways were clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic of residents evacuating, then ready to return home.

Some residents ran out of gas after being stuck in hours of traffic, so people were forced to sleep at gas stations waiting for the next fuel delivery.

APTOPIX Hurricane Irma

A car rides in the shoulder to pass other cars in evacuation traffic on I-75 N, near Brooksville, Fla., in advance of Hurricane Irma, Saturday, Sept, 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

One year later, AccuWeather checked in with the Florida Department of Transportation officials to see what improvements, if any, have been made.

"Safety is the number one priority at the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), and our goal this hurricane season is to keep travelers safe whether they live here or are visiting our beautiful beaches and attractions," Interim Communications Director for Florida Department of Transportation Ed Seifert said.

Seifert said the department’s existing processes, procedures and guidelines resulted in an infrastructure that had no major effects following Hurricane Irma.

"Naturally, typical issues that follow a major event such as debris removal, power outages, high water levels and larger-than-normal traffic volumes present challenges, but the infrastructure itself performed very well," Seifert said.

Florida evacuations after Irma

An estimated 6.5 million people were under evacuation orders as Gov. Scott warned all Floridians to be prepared flee ahead of the hurricane. The governor also noted that some residents didn't need to evacuate hundreds of miles away and that there may be shelters nearby.

After the dreadful Irma evacuations, Florida residents might be reluctant to evacuate in the future, so shelters might be fuller than usual.

“If you don’t need to evacuate hundreds of miles away, head to a shelter near you,” Gov. Scott said during Hurricane Irma evacuations in September 2017.

During Irma evacuation, FDOT and its partner, Florida Highway Patrol, implemented limited Emergency Shoulder Use (ESU) on portions of I-75 Wildwood North and I-4 from Tampa to Orlando.

"This allowed essential lanes into the state to remain clear for law enforcement, emergency vehicles, fueling trucks and supply deliveries to shelters and families in critical need," Deputy Communications Director for the Florida Department of Transportation Tom Yu said.

The department has also worked closely with the Florida Highway Patrol, and industry partners, to identify opportunities for increased efficiency in fuel supply and distribution.

Hurricane Irma

Traffic backs in the north-bound lanes of Interstate 75 near the Georgia-Florida state line as people flee Hurricane Irma Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, in Jennings, Fla.. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

On Oct. 12, 2017, Governor Scott directed the Florida Department of Transportation to examine ways to expedite emergency evacuation along the I-75 corridor, specifically between Wildwood and the Florida-Georgia state line, during emergencies such as hurricanes.

As a result of the study, FDOT added portions of I-75, I-10, I-95 and Turnpike to evacuation plans for shoulder use during the 2018 hurricane season.

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FDOT continues to work with the state, federal and local partners to ensure safe and efficient transportation for our residents and visitors this hurricane season.

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