Hurricane Irma: What will Florida’s Turnpike be like on the way back?

It was around Hour 5 of the Irma Refugee Crisis when I started to worry about hallucinations.

Ahead of me was an endless caravan of vehicles stretching north on Florida’s Turnpike, their red taillights glowing like a string of Christmas decorations in the dark. In the rear view mirror, my bleary eyes and pallid face resembled something out of a zombie apocalypse movie.

Was this ever going to end?

I left Jupiter at 1:30 a.m. Friday, taking what is usually a two-hour drive to my family’s home in Kissimmee, south of Orlando. I thought I was being cagey. If I left in the early morning hours, I ‘d beat some of the punishing daytime traffic caused by South Floridians fleeing this monster storm.

My wife and daughter had left the day before and were stuck in Turnpike traffic for five hours. Ha! Not going to happen to me.

Clear sailing from I-95 at Indiantown Road to the Fort Pierce Turnpike entrance increased my confidence. I was already rehearsing a smug soliloquy about how I had cleverly outmaneuvered everybody else.

Hurricane Irma: Get the latest news and information on the storm

And that’s when it all went to hell. I eased onto the Turnpike and stopped. And never really got going again.

For eight hours.

I became part of an unprecedented flow of bumper-to-bumper humanity streaming slowly north. It’s been called one of the largest mass evacuations in modern U.S. history— some 6 million people fleeing the state. And you could see it out here on the road.

Charter buses. Big rigs. Horse trailers. RVs. Taxicabs. Cars, trucks, U-Hauls and vans stuffed to the gills with family possessions.

What was it like? Imagine driving 100-plus miles at 5 mph. It would go like this: A quarter-mile of stop and start 5 mph driving. Then, suddenly, the bottleneck would loosen and you could speed up to about 30-40 mph. Here we go! It’s over!, you’d think. Then, brake lights would flash and your mood would deflate.

Eventually, I stopped expecting to see a car accident ahead that was causing extreme rubbernecking. The narrow two-lane roadway was simply overloaded.

For awhile, it was kind of fascinating. The Turnpike became a makeshift rest stop and waystation for Irma refugees. At least 50-100 vehicles were pulled off in grass, median strips and emergency lanes between Fort Pierce and Yeehaw Junction.

A woman was taking selfies of the curling line of vehicles. Two strangers smiled and shook hands outside their parked cars. One young woman sat on top of her car trunk, wrapped in a pink blanket with her dog. Backs of vans and SUVs were popped open, with boxes and suitcases spilling out. People were sleeping in their vehicles before continuing north. Some cars looked abandoned: Out of gas. One woman had her car door open, doing leg calisthenics.

It was like the Turnpike version of Woodstock.

At the plazas and turnoffs, it was madness. There was at least a half-mile long line at the Yeehaw Junction exit as well as entrance lanes to the Canoe Creek plaza. State troopers were intermittently blocking off access to gas pumps at the Fort Drum plaza, not because of shortages but to keep turnpike lanes from backing up. Electric signs urged drivers to keep going.

As I counted the hours ticking by, fatigue started to set in. I’d look into faces of people in cars next to me and recognize their weary, tired eyes.

Fortunately, I has plenty of tunes (I listened to 10 entire albums on Apple Music). But at some point, the mind starts to wander. You study a lot of license plates. Ahead of me was a car with a Rutherford, Tenn. plate. We became close. Around Hour 4, Rutherford switched lanes. I took it personally. Why are you abandoning me, Rutherford?

The worst part was when the sky began to lighten. I’d been on the Turnpike so long the sun was rising.

Was this ever going to end?

Finally, after an interminable backup at the Canoe Creek plaza, the logjam broke and I arrived at the Kissimmee exit. It was Hour 8. I looked in my rear view one last time.

The caravan of cars was still coming.

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