VERNON -- With the peak of hurricane season approaching early September and a new major hurricane forming in the Atlantic, some residents express concern about an incomplete highway that runs north-south through Washington and Holmes counties.
“Our primary concern is getting the road finish and moving forward,” said Vernon resident James Brooks. “It can become a problem.”
State Road 79 runs about 61 miles north-south from U.S. Highway 98 in Bay County through Washington and Holmes counties to Interstate 10.
The road is being expanded to a four-lane highway, and when completed, will have 14 retention ponds and two bridges, according to R.B. Baker Construction’s website rbbaker.com. The company was awarded a contract to construct 6.5 miles of the highway from Strickland Road to Mill Branch Bridge.
State 79, as most other north-south state highways, serves as a hurricane evacuation route.
“Most, if not all of our north-south routes, would act as a hurricane evacuation routes,” said Ian Satter, Florida Department of Transportation District 3 Public Information Officer. “Part of the function is to get traffic away from the coast if there was a hurricane.”
Satter emphasized, despite the winter 2019 completion date, State 79’s construction will not obstruct evacuation during a major storm. There are always two lanes open, he said.
“If there’s any equipment in the way that could hamper traffic, we would move it away from the work cite,” Satter said.
Still, some residents remain doubtful that the incomplete highway is safe enough for evacuees.
"Before, they had a sign that said 2017," said Byron Biddle, owner at Three Oaks Winery, 3348 SR 79.
Biddle, who has operated the winery for about 22 years, said traffic was "backed up past here all the way to the interstate" when Hurricane Opal struck the coast in 1994.
"All I've heard promises from the state: 'we're going to do 79' -- that was back in '78," Biddle said. "They evacuated for Ivan also, same thing."
He added, referring to the threat of another major hurricane: "And I don't know if it's going to be any different."
The Atlantic hurricane season ends Nov. 30.
Although National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts a busier hurricane season with more named storms, according to its website, fewer major storms are expected to make landfall.