Virginia officials apologize to stranded I-95 motorists, defend storm prep amid criticism
The view from Interstate 95 near Exit 137.8, south of Fredericksburg, where New York resident Alison Bradshaw was stuck with her family. (Alison Bradshaw via Prince William Times)
A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation offered an apology Tuesday to the countless people stranded overnight on Interstate 95 during Monday’s snowstorm. But officials involved in the emergency response insisted there was little they could have done differently to prevent the crisis on a heavily-travelled, 40-mile stretch of highway in Northern Virginia.
“We really understand that people face very stressful, scary situations,” Kelly Hannon, a spokeswoman for VDOT’s Fredericksburg office, told reporters on a conference call. “And we do apologize and we’ll be taking an exhaustive look at this incident.”
Dozens of people trapped on the highway took to social media to share stories about getting stuck in their cars for hours with limited gas, food and water and little information about what was being done to help. Among them was U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who said he had started what is usually a two-hour drive to Washington early Monday afternoon and was still in the car 19 hours later.
I started my normal 2 hour drive to DC at 1pm yesterday. 19 hours later, I’m still not near the Capitol. My office is in touch with @VaDOT to see how we can help other Virginians in this situation. Please stay safe everyone. pic.twitter.com/Sz1b1hZJZ5
— Tim Kaine (@timkaine) January 4, 2022
State Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, her husband, their two boys and the family dog were stranded overnight while returning from a holiday trip to New York. In an interview, Aird said her group was stuck in Stafford County for more than 15 hours, making it through the night with pretzels and Nutri-Grain bars picked up from a gas station. At times, she said, they turned off the car to try to conserve gas, unsure when they’d be able to refuel or buy more food.
“How is it something like this could happen in present day?,” she said.
Aird said she’s not buying the claim the state did all it possibly could.
“You knew that we were there but there was no information provided,” she said. “I think that more deliberate care and concern could have been shown. If you have the option of sending the National Guard to come in with blankets and these sorts of things, why not do it when people needed it most?”
Officials from VDOT, the Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management said both the intensity of the storm and the hazardous conditions it created complicated the state’s response.
The affected portion of road wasn’t pre-treated to prevent ice and snow buildup, according to VDOT engineer Marcie Parker, because the storm began as rain before turning to sleet and snow.
“If we pre-treat, the rain just washes it away,” Parker said. “So we’re really just wasting product and wasting money and interrupting the traffic flow.”
For nearly five hours Monday, Parker, said, snow was falling in the area at a rate of more than two inches per hour.
“That was entirely too much for us to keep up with,” Parker said. “Consequently, with the amount of traffic that we had on the interstate, the trucks and the cars couldn’t make it up and down the hills because we had too much snow and ice out there. So many vehicles got stuck in both the northbound and southbound directions.”
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, stressed that authorities had been encouraging people to stay off the roads starting Sunday.
“We were doing everything we could to push that messaging out to discourage folks from traveling,” Geller said. “I don’t know if everyone heeded that warning or not. But we did have very consistent messaging.”
As of late afternoon Tuesday, officials there were no reports of injuries or deaths among those who had to spend the night on the road and that all remaining vehicles had been checked for people who might need medical assistance.
Officials could not give an estimate for how many stuck, disabled or abandoned vehicles remained on the highway. But they predicted the road could be cleared by Tuesday evening and, barring any additional freezing, could be fully open for Wednesday’s rush hour.
The officials on the call said the Virginia National Guard wasn’t mobilized to help with the response because it can take 12 to 24 hours to call up civilian members and it was unclear the Guard could have made it to the area in time to assist. But they could not offer a comprehensive answer on why the Guard wasn’t mobilized well in advance to be able to respond if needed. Curtis Brown, the state’s coordinator of emergency management, said the snowfalls predicted didn’t meet the state’s general rules for pre-emptive emergency declarations for winter storms because light to moderate snow can usually be handled with existing resources.
UPDATE: There are no people stranded still on I-95. Less than 20 vehicles left to be removed from the interstate before plow trains will come through to remove snow and ice from the travel lanes.
— VDOT Fredericksburg (@VaDOTFRED) January 4, 2022
Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said the governor “is in close communication with state and local emergency management, and relies on their on-the-ground assessment of potential and evolving situations.”
“Prior to the storm, there was no indication that the National Guard’s capacity, personnel, or equipment would be necessary to handle its impacts,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email. “While the governor routinely grants requests to deploy the Guard, he received no recommendation to activate them prior to the storm.”
Yarmosky added the State Police and VDOT “have hundreds of personnel and equipment on the scene, and they are working quickly to handle this tremendously difficult situation.”
In a statement Tuesday morning, Speaker-designee Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, urged the administration to deploy the Guard as soon as possible.
“It’s not enough for the men, women and the heavy vehicles of the Virginia National Guard to be ‘available.’ They need to be activated to bring aid to those who need it and to help get the Interstate open again,” Gilbert said. “The best time to do this was last night. The second best time is now.”
State Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, released a statement saying his office was exploring potential legislation to prevent another “catastrophic occurence” like the one on 95.
“For example, we are exploring legislation on limiting trucks to a single right lane during significant snowfall,” he said, an apparent reference to reports sliding tractor-trailers had blocked the highway. “We are also considering how and when the National Guard could be used in these types of emergencies.”
State officials said they will conduct a full review of the incident.
In a second press call Tuesday afternoon, Northam said the wet conditions followed by rapidly dropping temperatures created “the perfect storm for what happened on I-95 last night.
“We were prepared for the storm that was predicted, a few inches of snow,” he said. “But instead, Mother Nature sent more than a foot of snow to the Fredericksburg area.”
Citing the National Weather Service, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reported Sunday the storm could bring 5 to 8 inches of snow and ice to the area.
“I can certainly understand that many drivers may have been from out of state and so missed the clear and consistent messaging from VDOT and emergency responders to stay off the roads during the winter storm,” Northam added.
This post has been updated to add additional remarks from a news conference by the governor later in the day.
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