Southeast prepares for monster Category 4 Hurricane Irma

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 9/8/2017

The entire Southeast region of the United States is bracing for a massive storm nearly the size of the state of Texas as the Category 4 Hurricane Irma approaches landfall. Traffic diversions span as far west as Alabama and as far north as North Carolina.

As of Friday afternoon, Irma is a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph near Cuba, approximately 350 miles southeast of Key Largo. The massive size of the storm is expected to maintain hurricane status throughout its path through Florida and into southern Georgia before downgrading to a tropical storm and tropical depression.

About 600 miles in diameter on Friday, Sept. 8, Irma is nearly the size of Texas. States as far north as Illinois can potentially experience tropical storm weather by Wednesday, Sept. 13.


A copy image of Hurricane Irma is superimposed over Texas to show the massive size of the Category 4 storm.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has issued a regional emergency declaration for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Drivers providing direct assistance are exempt from regulations governed by 49 CFR Parts 390-399. FMCSA will not enforce the Temporary Operating Authority Registration fee provisions against carriers requesting Temporary Operating Authority Registration to provide direct assistance to emergency relief efforts.

The Florida Department of Transportation has implemented a limited Emergency Shoulder Use plan during evacuations on Interstate 75 at Wildwood to the Georgia state line. Motorists should only use the left shoulder when directed by law enforcement and highway signs. According to a FDOT news release:

  • There is no contraflow or one-way operation in use on Florida state roadways.
  • No other state roadways are approved for shoulder use.
  • Although there are heavy pockets of evacuation traffic in some areas; traffic is flowing on this section of roadway.
  • Law enforcement urges motorists to use caution when driving on the shoulder – right shoulder use is prohibited.
  • FDOT has 13 Traffic Management Centers where hundreds of DOT workers are monitoring traffic cameras 24/7 to ensure traffic flows continue and evacuations proceed without interruption.

Heavy traffic is being reported on northbound Interstate 75 in Sumter and Marion counties from south of Florida’s turnpike through Ocala and into Gainesville. Abnormal traffic is expected throughout the entire state. FDOT has suspended tolls across the entire state. Mandatory and voluntary evacuations are in place for most coastal counties.

On Monday, Sept. 4, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in all 67 counties in the Sunshine State. The following day, President Trump approved Scott’s pre-landfall emergency request. A pre-landfall emergency declaration allows the federal government to provide assistance and resources while freeing up funding sources for emergency protective measures such as shoring up beach dunes, building emergency berms and planning for potential evacuations.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency for 30 counties. A mandatory evacuation order is in place for all areas east of Interstate 95, all of Chatham County and some areas west of I-95. Up to 5,000 Georgia National Guard members are authorized to be activated. According to recent trajectories, a larger area than expected of the Peach State may be affected.

Starting at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 9, the Georgia Department of Transportation will contraflow a 125-mile stretch of Interstate 16 from Savannah to US 441 in Dublin for evacuation purposes. As of press time, 15 Coordinated Highway Assistance and Maintenance Program operators have been deployed to I-95 and I-75 between Florida and Macon to provide motorists assistance and traffic control for the increased volume of evacuation traffic from Florida and the Georgia coast.

The I-75 South Metro Express Lanes are open to northbound traffic only. Tolls have been suspended on this facility until further notice. On I-75, this applies only to the South Metro Express Lanes in Henry and Clayton counties. Tractor-trailers are still not allowed to use these lanes.

Travelers may exit contraflow lanes at the following locations:

  • Exit 143 at SR 30/US 280 (Exit to Pembroke at Ellabell, Georgia)
  • Exit 116 at SR 73/ SR 301 (Exit to Statesboro and Claxton at Metter, Ga.)
  • Exit 104 at SR 23/ SR 121 (Exit to Metter and Reidsville at Metter, Ga.)
  • Exit 90 at SR 4/ US 1 (Swainsboro, Ga.)
  • Exit 71 at SR 15/ SR 78 (Exit to Soperton and Adrian at Soperton, Ga.)
  • Exit 67 at SR 29 (Soperton, Ga.)
  • Exit 51 at SR 31/US 319/US 441 (Dublin, Ga.)

Drivers looking for a Georgia evacuation map can click here.

A state of emergency went into effect on Thursday, Sept. 7, for North Carolina. Vehicles left unattended along interstates I-26, I-77, I-85 and I-95 in North Carolina will be towed to help keep traffic moving.

Starting 7 p.m. on Friday, the North Carolina Department of Transportation will suspend all construction and lane closures. An exception occurs on I-85 between Henderson and the Virginia line in Vance and Warren Counties, where a single lane each way will remain for 20 miles because of the nature of the project.

North Carolina northbound motorists looking for a detour can go on I-40 East at the I-40/85 interchange in Orange County, then I-540 East in Durham, followed by I-87 North on the east side of Raleigh to access I-95 North in Rocky Mount.

South Carolina has restricted lane closures for nonemergency highway work on all interstate highways in the state. The restrictions are effective immediately and remain in effect until further notice. Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency on Wednesday, Sept. 6. An evacuation map for the Palmetto State can be found here.

Truck traffic in Alabama is being detoured to make way for evacuees. According to Laura Byrne, deputy director of communications for Mobile, all commercial trucks traveling on Interstate 10 westbound will get off on Exit 27. Trucks will then be directed to take the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge to Interstate 165 and then to Interstate 65.

Insurance and price gouging
According to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association’s Truck Insurance Department, a moratorium for businesses in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina has been installed.

New insurance policies or increases to outstanding liability will not be granted within 100 miles of any coastal area with those states. The cease bind applies to all commercial property, inland marine, personal lines, homeowners and transportation risks. These restrictions will remain in force until the storm has passed and until 24 hours after the tropical storm/hurricane watch or warnings go down, or policyholders receive a notification.

During Hurricane Harvey, there were several claims of fuel price gouging. Anyone who spots price gouging in Florida should report the incident to the attorney general at 866-966-7226. The state attorney general should be contacted for price gouging occurring in other states.

Storm intensity
So far, Irma is the second strongest Atlantic hurricane on record in terms of sustained winds, trailing only Hurricane Allen in 1980, which hit sustained winds of 190 mph.

Three other hurricanes – Wilma (2005), Gilbert (1988) and “Labor Day” (1935) – have recorded sustained winds of 185 mph. Adjusted for strongest winds at landfall in the U.S., the Labor Day hurricane that struck the Florida Keys at 160 mph was the strongest, followed by Camille (150 mph) and Andrew (145 mph), according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

In regards to intensity measured by pressure, Irma has yet to rank in the top ten. Wilma reached a low pressure of 882 mb in 2005. However, a hurricane in the Florida Keys in 1935 had a low pressure of 892 mb when it struck, the lowest to reach landfall. So far, Irma’s lowest pressure has been 914 mb.

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