Category 3 Storm Continues Pushing Through Bahamas, Aiming For Florida Coastline
Tolls have been suspended on nearly all of Florida’s toll roads and the mainline of Florida’s Turnpike due to the approach of Hurricane Matthew. Chad Huff, spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation, announced the toll suspensions late this afternoon in a written release. The suspensions take effect at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time and will remain in effect for the duration of the storm.
The suspensions will be in effect for the following roadways:
Florida’s Turnpike Mainline, from Exit 2X in North Miami Beach/Miramar, north to the mainline terminus at Wildwood’s Exit 309.
Huff warned drivers to follow road signs and pay attention to message signs on the roadways. Specifically, he stated there would be directional signs posted at toll plazas, warning drivers to use extra care, as the plazas will be unmanned. “[Drivers] are advised to obey directional signs posted in advance of toll plazas and exercise caution when approaching the plaza structure.”
The National Hurricane Center’s 5 p.m. hurricane advisory shows the track of Matthew has jogged back to the west, putting the storm just offshore of Stuart by Friday morning. With the windfield on Hurricane Matthew extending outward about 175 miles from the center, even an offshore storm is likely to cause extreme high winds on approach, making travel hazardous beginning around midday Thursday, according to forecasters.
Tolls will remain suspended until after the storm passes and officials have assessed damage on the roadways, Huff said.
The majority of Florida’s east coast remains under a hurricane warning this afternoon, this as Hurricane Matthew continues its trek into the Bahamas, and eventually into the Gulf Stream near Florida. The National Hurricane Center’s latest forecast track has pushed the cone slightly to the east, which could bode well for drivers on Florida’s Turnpike, particularly in South Florida. The storm’s closest approach is expected late Thursday into Friday morning.
The storm system has prompted emergency operations offices to open across the state, and many government offices and schools, particularly in communities along the eastern shore, will be shuttered Thursday and Friday. The Florida Department of Transportation has been holding emergency meetings with various state officials, including discussions with Governor Rick Scott and federal authorities.
However, with the latest track pushing Hurricane Matthew to the east, FDOT will leave Florida’s Turnpike operating as usual, but with additional roadway patrols. There were “no toll suspensions as of yet,” said Chad Huff, an FDOT spokesman, via email. “All Turnpike service plazas are operating normally with food and fuel.”
Whether there is a decision to suspend tolls will depend greatly on whether Hurricane Matthew either strengthens or turns west into the peninsula. The current track still has the system coming perilously close to shore, but farther north than the early morning track, pushing many of the toll roads in Florida out of the most dangerous parts of the storm.
However, the NHC wind field forecast still puts much of Florida’s Turnpike under the lash of tropical-storm force winds. The likelihood of tropical storm-force winds hitting portions of Florida’s Turnpike remains above 70%, and as high as 90% along the Treasure Coast, which includes the communities of Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie and Stuart.
The NHC’s next full forecast is due to be released at 5 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
System Expected To Strengthen Before Coming Near Florida Coast
The track of Hurricane Matthew saw the storm clear the island nation of Cuba during the early morning hours today, as the storm set its sights on the Bahamas and, next, Florida. Forecasters have downgraded the storm to a category 3 hurricane, but no further weakening is expected. In fact, forecasters believe the system will strengthen some as it traverses the Bahamas, following the path of least resistance through the island nation. By Thursday morning, the storm is expected to be off the coast of Florida.
Because of that track, influenced by a high-pressure ridge in the Atlantic, Florida’s east coast is now, largely, under a hurricane warning. Those warnings went up late Tuesday night, only hours after the east coast had been put under tropical storm and hurricane watches. The current hurricane warning area covers the Florida coastline from Golden Beach, in Miami-Dade County, to Sebastian Inlet, at the north end of Indian River County. Hurricane watches are in effect from the inlet north to Fernandina Beach, adjacent to Jacksonville. Tropical storm warnings are in effect for Miami-Dade County and portions of the upper Florida Keys.
State transportation officials are expected to make a decision today about whether to suspend tolls on Florida’s Turnpike. It is unclear how soon such a decision could be made; however, forecasters predict tropical storm conditions will begin to impact the South Florida coast by mid Thursday morning, with conditions deteriorating throughout the day.
It is not uncommon for authorities to suspend tolls and change travel directions on toll roads and other highways to accommodate evacuations.