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Police struggle to keep traffic moving north ahead of Irma

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By David Davis

By the time Hurricane Irma passed, the city of Chiefland fared well, except for car after car after car, camping trailers, motorhomes and more cars lined up one after another as they fled north from south Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma.

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Friday seemed like a typical day. The weather was nice, sunny, a few fluffy clouds floated through the sky, there was nothing threatening that would explain an impending natural disaster.

Police officers directed traffic Friday at Murphy Express and the North Marathon gas stations after all the other stations were out of fuel. Tuesday, it was virtually the same scene again when the line of evacuees reversed course and headed back home again to south Florida.

But on Friday, the Wal-Mart parking lot was filled with motorhomes and campers filled with travelers; some staying overnight to rest and some maybe thought they had gone far enough, but that was when Irma was supposed to turn north from Cuba and then go up the East Coast.

Store shelves looked like the storm had already hit. Some items seemed left untouched by people as they tried to stock up on bread, water, canned sandwich meat and batteries. It’s usually never a problem to find “C” and “D” cell batteries, but they are impossible to find in a storm.

Tractor Supply had sold out of generators, plywood and batteries. The store had very few items left anyone would need to ride out a storm.

The 12 officers of the Chiefland Police Department directed traffic as drivers searched for the most precious commodity of all — gasoline.

Chief Scott Anderson and Cpl. Kyle Schultz were at the North Marathon while two others maintained order at Murphy Express.

“We just don’t have the manpower to do this, so it is what it is; trying to have controlled chaos; trying to keep this roadway open and help these people evacuate,” he said.

Since Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Sept. 4 for the entire state while Irma was still a Category Four, Anderson is hopeful FEMA will reimburse the city for the cost of keeping the city streets open sand safe.

“That’s what I’m hoping. If not, then no, we really don’t have the money to do this, but we don’t have any choice,” Anderson said. “But it doesn’t matter whether FEMA does or not, we have to do this.”

The chief of police said the traffic was only the beginning and it will get much worse before it gets better. First is the traffic and then wind and rain from the storm itself will just have to be dealt with.

“If a storm hits and we have powerlines and trees down then we’ll go into a rescue mode trying to make sure people are all right in their homes. The traffic we’re not going to worry about then. It’s life before property,” he said.

Anderson said he will not have any idea who evacuates and who doesn’t.

“We’ll get calls through cellphones that something’s happened or we’ll get word through EOC that a tornado touched down,” he said. “We’ve just got to play this by ear. There’s not figuring it out. We just do the best we can in the situation we have to work with.

“As things progress, we’ll take different actions,” he said.

But Tuesday, Anderson was directing traffic again at the North Marathon gas station, the only one open with any fuel.