Heavy traffic traveling northbound on Interstate 75 moves slowly, as a major evacuation has begun in preparation for Hurricane Irma, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, in Forrest Park, south of Atlanta.
Photo: AP Photo/Mike Stewart
Photo: AP Photo/Mike Stewart

Hurricane Irma snarls Georgia traffic as evacuees hit the road

Rachel Fang loaded two dogs into her car and left North Miami Beach Thursday afternoon bound for her aunt’s home in Kennesaw.

After a five-hour car nap somewhere in South Georgia, she made it to Forsyth, about 50 miles outside Atlanta, around 11 a.m. Friday. But the Exxon where she stopped along I-75 had run out of gas. So she commiserated with other Floridians standing around the station while her collie and Australian shepherd yapped with other dogs.

“Driving was terrible,” Fang, 31, said. “It was jammed at all times.”

With Hurricane Irma bearing down, hundreds of thousands of people are evacuating coastal areas of Georgia and Florida. That has snarled traffic in parts of the Peach State, especially on I-75 headed toward Atlanta.

Georgia officials have opened toll lanes and halted road construction to accommodate the glut of motorists leaving ahead of the hurricane.

Beginning Friday, the State Road and Tollway Authority suspended the usual rules for the I-75 South Metro Express Lanes in Clayton and Henry counties.

Gov. Nathan Deal speaks to members of the press during a news conference to provide Hurricane Irma updates and outline the state’s emergency preparedness and response efforts at The Georgia State Capitol on Friday, September 8, 2017. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Using those lanes normally requires a Peach Pass or a Florida SunPass, and motorists are charged a toll. But the state is allowing anyone to use the 12 miles of lanes south of Atlanta – whether they have a pass or not – and has stopped collecting tolls for the time being. Tractor trailers are still prohibited from using the lanes.

In addition, the SRTA will keep the reversible lanes headed northbound. Typically, they are reversed in the afternoon to accommodate southbound rush-hour traffic. The lanes will continue to carry northbound traffic until further notice.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Department of Transportation has suspended construction-related lane closures on area interstates and secondary routes until 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The state will also convert all lanes on I-16 to eastbound beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday to accommodate people evacuating from the Georgia coast.

Transportation officials are also reminding motorists they don’t have to stick to crowded interstates, and Atlanta doesn’t have to be their destination.

“Right now the trend we’re seeing is the entirety of Florida is coming to Atlanta,” said GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale. “We just want people to know there are more options.”

Dozens of vehicles occupied by weary Floridians packed rest stop No. 19 in Bibb County on Friday.

For some, a pause at the building containing bathrooms and vending machines represented the first proper break after 12 hours on the road escaping a hurricane threatening to destroy their homes.

Sarvireddy Eppaturi, a 36-year-old software developer, was sitting on a concrete bench outside the rest stop scrolling through his phone.

Lying on the bench was his driver, fast asleep and using a bunched-up sweatshirt as a makeshift pillow.

They left Tampa with family and friends Thursday night and had stopped twice before Macon.

Florida traffic was awful in Ocala and Jacksonville, Eppaturi said, stopping them from getting much beyond 40 mph for long stretches.

His game plan was to head for the Hindu Temple of Atlanta, which he heard was taking in evacuees.

“Otherwise I don’t know where I’d stay the next couple of days,” he said.

Eppaturi was one of the many people who took a bottle of water from a local church handing out snacks and drinks at the rest stop.

Chris Fuller, with Northway Church in Macon, said his congregation brought between 500 to 600 snacks and an unknown amount of donated bottles of water and Coke — the latter of which went the fastest — to the rest stop.

“People need that caffeine,” he said.

Interstate 75 is packed with vehicles in south Georgia.