Planning to return to Florida? State officials say ‘extend your vacation’

Instead of the surge in traffic expected Sunday after emergency officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for hundreds of thousands of people living along Hurricane Dorian’s potential path, Florida’s major highways were quiet.

“I was just talking with my staff about how the Turnpike is wide open,’’ said Kevin Thibault, secretary of the Department of Transportation late Sunday. “Traffic numbers are lower than expected for a Labor Day weekend, and even for a regular Sunday.”

Speculation was that people along the storm’s path from Palm Beach to Duval counties had already left for their Labor Day holidays, or others were awaiting more information on the uncertain track of the slow-moving storm before leaving for drier ground.

But for Kevin Guthrie, deputy director of the Division of Emergency Management, the worst that could happen is that everyone who has left for the weekend returns on Monday — about the same time as people decide it’s time to evacuate from the coast.

“We will have people who probably have been on the road for a few days vacation, taking a few days now all of a sudden, and they are coming back into Florida,’’ he said. “I hope those folks will extend their vacation a few days.”

Congested traffic could interfere with first responders, utility crews and emergency vehicles who are still traveling to position themselves in the regions expected to be hardest hit when Dorian nears Florida’s coast late Monday and Tuesday.

Evacuation orders took effect for parts of Palm Beach and Martin counties Sunday afternoon in Zones A and B , which affect about 215,000 people living in those high-risk areas. Shelters opened in those counties at the same time.

Mandatory evacuations in Indian River, Volusia, Duval, Nassau, St. Johns and Brevard counties are set to begin Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a late Sunday briefing. Shelters there will open Monday, including special needs and pet-friendly locations.

To encourage people to leave, and facilitate traffic flow, DeSantis suspended tolls around the affected areas on Alligator Alley, SR 528 (Beachline), the Sawgrass Expressway (SR 869) and the Florida Turnpike Mainline (SR 91), including the Homestead Extension (SR 821).

But traffic along the state’s major highways appeared largely clear throughout most of Sunday, Thibault said, although he acknowledged some evacuees from Palm Beach might head south, “intending to go west on Alligator Alley, so they can go to the west part of the state.”

DeSantis said state officials are monitoring major highways but noted “this is not a typical Labor Day weekend.”

“Hurricane news has been going on for several days now. That probably impacted the natural traffic flow,” he said. “People have been through this drill before. Sometimes there can be message fatigue.”

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The state monitors traffic with video cameras and telemetrics and the Florida Highway Patrol has also dispatched three aircraft to monitor the roads.

If traffic backlogs develop — as they did during Hurricane Irma in 2017, when major highways were clogged with hours-long delays — Thibault said the state will focus on providing more lanes for motorists heading away from the coast.

“Our best bet is to open the shoulders if we need to provide more throughput in a certain direction, whether it be east-west, or north-south,” Thibault said.

Elizabeth Koh can be reached at and on Twitter @elizabethrkoh. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at and @MaryEllenKlas.

Elizabeth Koh is a state government reporter in the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times’ shared Tallahassee bureau, where she covers the Florida Legislature with a focus on health care politics and policy. A Brown University graduate, she covered local politics for the Washington Post and national politics for the Dallas Morning News’ D.C. bureau before joining the Herald in 2017.