TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Oil tankers are streaming into Florida's ports as demand for gasoline spikes with Hurricane Irma evacuees returning home.
Meanwhile, 3.5 million homes and business were without electricity Wednesday afternoon, down from 3.8 million earlier in the day and some 3 million less than on Monday.
And headaches for motorists who went to North Florida and other states to flee Irma could get worse.
The state Wednesday afternoon closed portions of U.S. 27 and U.S. 41 near the surging Santa Fe River northwest of Gainesville and continued to watch for flash flooding impacts on other roads in Alachua County, including Interstate 75.
State Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, tweeted that he was advised there was no timeline to close the interstate.
“Lots of work to do, but communities are pulling together to help each other,” Perry tweeted. “That's what Floridians do.”
The river under the interstate rose 15 feet -- to 55 feet -- from Tuesday to Wednesday after Irma's heavy rains soaked the northern part of the state.
“If the river rises to an unsafe level, the bridge will be impassable both northbound and southbound, and would be closed immediately,” Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokeswoman Beth Frady said in a prepared statement. “Floridians that are traveling should avoid the area if possible.”
State Road 26 in eastern Alachua County was shut down earlier in the day due to flooding from Hatchett Creek but was opened around midday.
The problems in Alachua County came as Jacksonville has seen major flooding since Monday in areas around the St. Johns River.
Issues are less dramatic at most of the state's seaports.
Big concerns remain for the Port of Key West, where communications have been limited and a damage assessment had yet to be made, Florida Ports Council President and CEO Doug Wheeler said Wednesday. Irma made landfall Sunday in the Keys before making a second landfall in Southwest Florida.
Otherwise, Florida's ports have been fully reopened or opened with restrictions as channels continued to be cleared for debris by the U.S. Coast Guard, Wheeler said.
Wheeler said it was too early to estimate the impact of the hurricane on the to the container-ship and cruise industries. But the ports themselves, given days to secure cranes and lock down warehouses as Irma barreled through the Caribbean with 185 mph maximum sustained winds, received mostly minor damage, from requiring channel markers to be put back in place to needed repairs for a seawall at Port Tampa Bay.
Port Everglades, Port Tampa Bay and Port Canaveral, which handle most of the state's fuel operations, have seen an increase in oil tankers arriving in port since Irma departed from Florida on Monday.
“Those vessels have been coming in over the last day or so,” Wheeler said. “Those trucks are leaving the port with gas, and working their best to get to as many gas stations as possible. And then turning around and go up and filling up again and headed back to the next gas station. So we're working non-stop to make sure we're getting gas out there.”
In other Irma-related developments Wednesday:
-- The focus of the day was the death of eight residents of a Broward County nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.
The nursing home had been without air conditioning after Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity in the area. The Florida Health Care Association, a nursing-home industry group, said Wednesday morning that about 150 of nearly 700 nursing facilities in the state did not have electricity fully restored.
Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying he had directed the state Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children and Families to work with law-enforcement officials in investigating the deaths.
-- President Donald Trump will visit Naples and Fort Myers on Thursday.
-- The Trump administration expanded the major disaster declaration for Florida to cover 37 counties: Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Collier, DeSoto, Duval, Flagler, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Sumter and Volusia.
The declaration allows federal dollars to be available to Floridians impacted by Hurricane Irma and provides reimbursement for local communities and the state government for storm response and recovery.
-- More than 160 shelters remained open statewide, housing 21,000 people.
-- The Monroe County Board of County Commissioners reported that electricity was on for 7 percent of customers of Keys Energy Services, which covers the south end of Seven Mile Bridge to Key West.
The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, which serves the rest of the Keys, had restored power to about 30 percent of its service area.
Key West International Airport and Florida Keys Marathon International Airport were open, while about 2,000 members of the Florida National Guard were in the Keys to help with communications and distribution points for food and water.