After the previous shuttle launch in February, some visitors returning to Orlando were stuck in traffic for three to five hours for a trip that normally takes an hour. The crowds overflowed into the roadways, blocking traffic.
"Cars couldn't get through them since the crowds overwhelmed them," said Bob Lay, the county's emergency management director. "It was almost like being in New Orleans at Mardi Gras."
Although a toll plaza was opened on the main highway between the Space Coast and Orlando so drivers could pass through without paying, it wasn't well-publicized and drivers ended up stopping anyway. This time around, local police agencies are getting the word out about no tolls, said Lt. Todd Maddox, a spokesman for the Brevard County Sheriff's Office.
"Once they start to stop, it's a trickledown effect," Maddox said. "It backs all the way up and it becomes a parking lot."
Traffic is expected to be so congested that if the countdown is halted at the last minute because of poor weather or technical problems, NASA may delay the next attempt by two days instead of one to avoid launch team members getting stuck in traffic and unable to get enough rest for the 24-hour turnaround.
Local police agencies also plan to use the county's emergency operations center so they can coordinate traffic flow better. Cocoa Beach schools are planning to let students out early, if the launch stays on schedule, to avoid the traffic headaches. Obama and his entourage will not affect traffic since his plane will land at the Kennedy Space Center.
Lay advises anybody who doesn't need to come into the northern half of the county to stay away.
For those who do come, "they need to bring patience and they need to know it's going to take time," Lay said. "If they've got that, then they'll have a wonderful day."
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