Originally created 09/17/99

Return traffic crams roads



It was deja vu for coastal residents Thursday, except this time they were facing east.

The thousands of people forced from their homes under the threat of Hurricane Floyd took to the roads after mandatory evacuation orders for Georgia and South Carolina were lifted Thursday morning.

The Augusta and Aiken shelters where coastal residents sought refuge emptied; people camping out roadside soon disappeared; and the evacuees strolling aimlessly for the past few days, looking for anything to do, now had a place to go -- home.

Although Interstate 16 into Savannah had been operating with all lanes open for westbound traffic during the mass exodus, officials did not do the same for the return.

Interstate 26, which runs from Columbia into Charleston, did have all lanes open for eastbound traffic Thursday. South Carolina Highway Patrol officials said the interstate traffic was moving -- slowly.

Gov. Jim Hodges has been strongly criticized for not opening all lanes Tuesday when evacuees were trying to get out of Charleston, stretching trips that normally take a few hours into double digits.

Early on Thursday, Georgia State Patrol officials said traffic was heavy on the interstates but was moving slowly. A portion of Interstate 16 into Savannah that had been closed was reopened at about 8 a.m.

It was the other four-lane highways, usually quiet, that were jammed bumper-to-bumper Thursday. Traffic on U.S. Highway 278, which runs from Aiken County to just outside Hilton Head, was at a near standstill just as it was Tuesday, Allendale County sheriff's officials reported.

Highways spilling onto interstates also were jammed, as residents waited to get onto major roadways that would take them home.

By about noon, congestion was dispersed in the Augusta area, police said, while the near-gridlock moved toward the coast.

Traffic along Georgia Highway 80 near Statesboro was at a snail's pace in early afternoon.

Keeping things orderly and traffic moving, military camouflage humvees were posted at several exits on Interstate 16.

Reach Meghan Gourley (706) 823-3227.