At 80 miles wide, with 155 mile per hour winds, Hurricane Irma is terrifying in its perfection, with warm, deep water and minimal wind shear helping it along. And after it devastated Caribbean islands, Irma is making its way straight toward Florida.
Unlike during Hurricane Harvey, where most local officials ordered their residents to shelter in place, the message with Irma has been, run. “If you’re in a evacuation zone, you’ve got to get out,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said on Good Morning America Friday morning. “You can’t wait.”
And so, with plenty of warning, as many as 6 million people could book it out of the state’s three most populous counties, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach, ahead of Saturday’s landfall. That, added to exoduses from the Florida Keys and surrounding towns, would make this the largest mass evacuation in American history, beating 2005’s Houston-area Hurricane Rita exit by millions. Residents aren’t the only ones fleeing: Airlines are moving their aircraft out of the region, along with as many passengers as they can carry. Ships are skipping stops in Florida, or rearranging schedules to come back when Irma has dissipated.
It’s hard to put the scale of this mass migration into words, which is why we’re letting maps do the talking. Use the slider tool to view road, air, and marine traffic a week ago (on the left) and then in the midst of Friday’s exodus (on the right).
According to live traffic data from Google Maps, road-going evacuees had mostly cleared out of Southern Florida by late Friday afternoon, with heavy traffic jams cropping up in the middle of the state instead. I-75, to the south of Ocala, got the worst of it, where the main road meets the Florida Turnpike, stuffed with the cars coming out of Orlando. Areas to the north weren’t much better, as traffic clogged the roads up all the way up through Tallahassee, Florida, and Atlanta. Don’t forget about other states, too—traffic was predictably messy around Savannah, Georgia, under mandatory evacuation orders, and inland South Carolina. The red runs as far north as Atlanta.
For authorities, facilitating car evacuations are a question of logistics. Most main roads go to contraflow, with both sides of the highway pointing north, away from Irma. Officials set up fuel stations along the highway, and rapid response tow teams gear up to get damaged vehicles off the road ASAP.
Others have fled the peninsula by airplane. The Federal Aviation Administration said Miami’s traffic controllers handled 11,500 flights on Thursday, compared to 8,800 a week earlier. Live air traffic images Friday afternoon from the flight tracking website FlightRadar24 show an abundance of commercial airliners and private planes getting out of the area. Most Floridian airports began suspending flights Friday afternoon, and will completely close up shop at some point Saturday as Irma arrives.
Some of the upper crust also appear to be moving their yachts out of the eastern Florida coast. (Those are the pink dots.) Friday saw a conspicuous lack of container ships in the area (green), as well as passenger ships (blue). “Usually, that area is full of ships,” says Nerijus Poskus, the head of ocean freight for the customs brokerage company Flexport. Not this weekend.
Where did the ships go? A wider view of the area shows a veritable flotilla making its way around the state’s tip and skirting by Cuba before heading west, into the Gulf. The stronger winds, in pinks, reds, and oranges, nip at their floating heels.
In an all-caps message tweeted Friday night, the National Weather Center outpost in Key West reminded residents that “THIS IS AS REAL AS IT GETS,” and that they still have time to leave. Because getting stuck in traffic is better than getting stuck in the middle of an historic hurricane.