Florida evacuees hit the road after Irma, snarling Georgia traffic

The Fairfield Inn & Suites on the outskirts of Columbus was emptying fast Tuesday morning, as the Floridians who had lodged there packed up and headed south.

Joe Dark, of Sarasota, was loading his silver SUV with clothes and a box that included a loaf of bread, as I-185 across the parking lot buzzed with traffic. He was expecting a tough slog, having checked a map online.

“We saw the red places where it’s jammed up,” he said. He and his wife were worried about gasoline shortages on the drive to Sarasota.

They were right to worry. Days after fleeing Florida and coastal areas of Georgia, evacuees began streaming home from Atlanta and the rest of Georgia Tuesday. They were bound for places that might not have electricity or gasoline.

Their exodus clogged traffic up and down I-75. Traffic started backing up between Atlanta and Macon early Tuesday morning. By the afternoon, those red lines Dark watched included stretches of I-75 as far north as Cartersville and as far south as Valdosta.

The Georgia Department of Transportation had no count of evacuees on the road Tuesday. But traffic on I-75 south of Atlanta was twice as heavy as usual.

State transportation officials wished they would have waited until at least Wednesday.

“If you’re headed back, you really need to know what you’re headed back to,” said GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale.

“A lot of these places in south Georgia and Florida have no power. There are gas shortages,” Dale said. “If they get to south Georgia or north Florida and they run out of gas, there’s a good chance they will not be able to get gas.”

Dale said GDOT has relocated 20 roadside assistance units to I-75 between Atlanta and the Florida line. It now has enough to position trucks about every 10 miles.

“But if you run out of gas, we can only give you so much gas to get to the next exit, and there may not be gas there,” Dale said.

The heavy traffic and uncertain prospects didn’t deter some evacuees, who were itching to get home.

It took Maryam Davani Hosseini three hours Tuesday afternoon to drive from Milton to Forsyth. Her GPS kept telling her it would be a nine-hour drive back to Miami, but it had taken her 20 hours to get to Atlanta. She thought she might be able to spend the night in Jacksonville, staying with a friend who didn’t have power.

Already, she’s been rerouted on to back roads where traffic lights are out, causing backups.

Hosseini’s office won’t open again until Friday, but she’s new to her advertising job, and didn’t want to risk taking advantage of her company. Besides, after staying with friends of the family she’d never met since she evacuated on Thursday, she was ready to be home.

“It was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said of leaving Miami without knowing her destination, or whether her home would be standing when she returned. “It felt really weird watching from not home, seeing my street and building on national TV. It was really unsettling.”

Some Floridians decided to wait another day before heading out.

Melinda Melendez, 39, said she was preparing for busy roads when she leaves Valdosta on Wednesday with her husband Ivan and their daughters — ages 2, 6 and 8.

The family waited to return to their Fort Myers condo because they didn’t know if they had a home to come back to. But a neighbor with a spare key took a peek on Tuesday afternoon and let them know it was fine.

“So that was a huge relief,” Melendez said shortly after getting the phone call.

But she knows the stress is far from over.

“The next three or four days is going to be crazy on the roads,” Melendez said.

Some Floridians saw the traffic and were in no hurry to get home.

Casandra Wood and Deborah DeFeo were in good spirits as they headed out of the Costco in Morrow Tuesday. They had hunkered down in Peachtree City after arriving from Naples and St. Petersburg, Fla.

Wood said that she’d been keeping up with conditions in St. Petersburg and “we’ve had no power for a week.”

Asked when they might consider returning home, both said they’re in no rush. Looking at the barely-moving traffic on nearby I-75 South, DeFeo shrugged.

“There’s no reason to go home right now,” she said. “The mayor [of Naples] said people could come back, but he said to be aware that there’s no power, nothing’s open, that there’s a gas problem.”

“Besides, where could you go?,” DeFeo asked.

Staff writers Arielle Kass, Ben Brasch and Mandi Albright contributed to this report.

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