70ºF

Floridians take to the roads to flee ahead of Hurricane Irma

31,000 people flee Hurricane Irma


Bumper-to-bumper traffic as far as the eye can see: That was the scene heading north on the Florida Turnpike on Thursday.

"We left at 6:30 a.m. and it took us six hours from West Palm Beach to Orlando, which is normally a two-and-a-half-hour drive, said Andrew Gonzales, who is heading north with thousands of other people along this popular route.

Gonzalez and his girlfriend Ashley grabbed their stuff and their two dogs and are heading straight to Cincinnati, Ohio, to escape the storm. And they are not alone.

Everyone we talked to here at the Turkey Lake rest area was coming from down south. All of them were taking turns to grab gas, hit the restroom and get back on the road as soon as possible.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers were on hand to maintain order and keep the peace as these Floridians took to the road to get as far from Hurricane Irma as possible.

They just fear what they may return home to once the storm has passed.

"Hopefully when we get home, we'll have some place to be," Gonzales said.

"I have two dogs, I have my mother, my son," said Elaine Phelps, who is evacuating from Fort Lauderdale . "I am going to see my son in college in Troy so that's what I'm excited about."

Phelps may be excited about her trip, but not the journey.

"We got on the turnpike at 6 this morning, its almost 2 and we're just now getting to where we are," Phelps said through tears and a smile. "It has been bumper to bumper and my advice is if you're getting out, get out."

Phelps is a lifelong Floridian. She says she has weathered her share of hurricanes but was not going to take any chances with Hurricane Irma.

"I have been here since I was 7 years old," Phelps said. "I've been through Hurricane Wilma and at first I wasn't going to go -- but now I'm kind of going to be glad I did."

And after seeing the images of what Hurricane Irma has done to the Caribbean, she just hopes her family still has a house when it's over.

Her other motivator to leave her home -- what happened in Texas during Hurricane Harvey.

"If Harvey had not happened, I'd be, like, 'We're staying.' But my husband said, we'We're going just (to) be safe,'" Phelps said.

We did meet one man who was actually heading south. He lives in Fort Lauderdale and just wanted to pick up his camper. He said he was then going to turn around immediately and head back north.

At least 31,000 people fled the Florida Keys, which could begin seeing wind and rain from Irma as early as Friday night, Gov. Rick Scott said. He noted the size of the powerful Category 5 storm, and told residents not to become complacent.

"It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate," Scott said.

NASA secured the Kennedy Space Center as SpaceX launched an unmanned rocket for an experimental flight. Kennedy closed its doors to all nonessential staff and a crew of about 120 people will ride out the storm on site.

Most of the critical buildings at Kennedy are designed to withstand gusts of up to 135 mph (220 kph). Irma's wind could exceed that if it reaches Cape Canaveral.

With winds that peaked at 185 mph (300 kph), Irma was among the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered evacuations for all areas east of Interstate 95, including the city of Savannah, and authorized about 5,000 National Guard members to help with response and recovery.


About the Authors: