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After Hurricane Irma drove them from their homes, millions of Floridians were eager to return Monday and survey what damage might await them.
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 clean-up 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
“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 power-lines across the state. Roads that are impassable all over this state. We have debris all over this state.”
“If you don’t need to be on the roads, don’t get out,” Scott urged residents.
Even the White House urged patience and said Monday evacuees should not return until they were told.
But drivers were, nonetheless, clearly trying to do so — particularly in Central Florida.
By 4 p.m., Interstate 4 westbound out of Orlando was seeing congestion in pockets, such as west of U.S. 192 and again near Lakeland.
State officials say no main highways or interstates were closed, as of Sunday afternoon. But access to the Keys via U.S. 1 remained blocked “until further notice” because of the extent of the damage there.
But the state did report various stretches of interstate — particularly in hard-hit areas like Miami-Dade or Jacksonville — had obstacles on roadways, likely from storm debris, that motorists should watch out for.
Evacuees who fled long distances should check with their local communities and fl511.com — the state’s source for real-time traffic conditions — before getting on the road. Reports of road and bridge closures are also available online from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
And realize you might have trouble finding places to gas up. As was before Irma, Florida faces a fuel shortage.
Motorists looking for places to gas up while evacuating can check GasBuddy, which offers a tracker on which gas stations have fuel. Fuel is not available at Turnpike service plazas, the state said.
Scott reiterated the state is working to get fuel transported throughout the state from ports in Tampa and Miami.
Suppliers face an uphill battle in the coming days, trying to keep gas stations supplied, as Florida evacuees return home in large numbers after the storm.
Gas stations not located along major highways should have an easier time keeping supplies, as residents are no longer “panic pumping”, since the storm is no longer a threat. Refueling gas stations along major evacuation routes will be a top priority, as it was before the storm.
Motorists are still likely to find long lines, which could lead to temporary outages, due to the surge in demand. It could take a week for supply conditions to return to normal
“Florida evacuees should plan their return home very carefully,” said Mark Jenkins, spokesman of AAA – The Auto Club Group. “First, ensure you know there are no major hazards at home or along your travel route. Expect congestion on the roadways, as the first few days after the storm will be the busiest. Pay close attention to traffic reports.”
Jenkins added: “Ensure you have a full tank of gas before you hit the road. Do not let your fuel gauge fall below a quarter tank before you start looking for a place to refuel. Bring a gas can in case you run out of fuel. It is not safe to drive with a full gas can inside an enclosed vehicle.”
Meanwhile, Scott said state Department of Transportation officials were inspecting roads and bridges for damage caused by Irma.
There was road and bridge damage in the Florida Keys but roads were passable, Scott said after flying over the Keys Sunday afternoon.
Residents who live in Florida’s coastal areas should prepare for a wait before they return. “We need DOT to inspect the bridges before people go back to these barrier islands,” Scott said, saying it was a “top priority.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.