In this NOAA GOES-East satellite handout image, Hurricane Dorian, now a Cat. 5 storm, tracks towards the Florida coast taken at 13:20Z September 1, 2019 in the Atlantic Ocean. A hurricane warning is in effect for much of the northwestern Bahamas as it gets hit with 175 mph winds. According to the National Hurricane Center Dorian is predicted to hit the U.S. as a Category 4 storm.
Hundreds of thousands of Floridians are now under mandatory evacuation orders as Hurricane Dorian nears Florida’s east coast, prompting worries of traffic backlogs and delays as evacuees head north and west away from the storm’s potential path.
State officials said they are monitoring traffic flow as those orders take effect for parts of Palm Beach and Martin counties Sunday afternoon and more orders could be expected before Dorian’s bands reach Florida’s shores.
Both Palm Beach and Martin issued mandatory evacuation orders for Zones A and B starting at 1 p.m. Sunday, which affect about 215,000 people in all living in those high-risk areas. Shelters are opening in those counties at the same time.
Mandatory evacuations in Indian River County are set to begin Monday, local authorities said. Shelters there will open Monday, including special needs and pet-friendly locations.
Early Sunday afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he was suspending 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) to ease evacuations.
The orders could spur thousands of cars onto the state’s major highways in the next few days. State Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said state officials are monitoring major highways with video cameras and telemetrics as evacuations begin. The Florida Highway Patrol has also dispatched three aircraft to monitor the roads.
Traffic along the state’s major highways appeared largely clear midday on traffic monitoring websites, and Thibault said that traffic levels were actually below what was typical for a Sunday, perhaps in part because of the Labor Day weekend.
Officials are focusing on northbound and westbound traffic along major highways, though Thibault 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.”
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,” he said.
This story is being updated.