Outside firm to investigate Virginia’s I-95 response

By: - February 4, 2022 12:04 am

A winter storm stranded hundreds of drivers and passengers on Interstate 95 in early January. (Virginia Department of Transportation)

A month after the shutdown that left hundreds of people stranded on I-95, there’s no timeline yet for the completion of the multi-agency after-action review to examine the state’s widely-criticized response. However, state officials said the review will be conducted by an outside firm under an existing contract with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, will perform the review at a cost of $79,427, said Emily Wade, assistant director of communications at the Virginia Department of Transportation.

State officials did not organize a unified command structure with local agencies until the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 4, a day after the first backups began on the heavily traveled highway during a snowstorm that became more intense than initially anticipated by officials and stranded motorists and passengers overnight in frigid temperatures. 

An article from Statter911, a fire and emergency medical services news site, first reported the delay in setting up a unified command, employed during disasters or emergencies in which “more than one agency has incident jurisdiction, or when incidents cross political jurisdictions,” according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Incident Management System. And last week, The Washington Post reported that it took the top levels of Virginia government, including former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, more than 20 hours to come to grips with the severity of the crisis, a delay that “added to widespread misery for travelers.” 

The massive backups along the 40-mile stretch of 95, one of the nation’s busiest highways, and the length of time drivers were stuck ignited a call for answers as to what went wrong in the state’s response.

VDEM said it was only made aware the morning of Jan. 4 of the severity of the ongoing situation on the highway, said Lauren Opett, VDEM’s director of communications. 

Caroline County EMS said it responded to several calls related to the highway pileup on Jan. 3 and Jan. 4 but did not have a coordination conference call with VDEM staff until 9 a.m. on Jan. 4, said Jason Loftus, Caroline County’s deputy coordinator of emergency management and fire and EMS chief. It wasn’t until that call that Caroline officials learned of VDOT’s plan to move traffic off I-95.

Sixteen miles farther north, Spotsylvania County’s emergency personnel were not dispatched to any incidents on the highway until Tuesday night, when it was requested by VDOT and Virginia State Police, said Michelle McGinnis, Spotsylvania County’s director of community engagement.

“Virginia State Police has jurisdiction over the interstate,” McGinnis said. “Spotsylvania sheriff’s deputies were engaged in incidents that occurred on the county’s primary and secondary roadways.”

Prince William County’s  Department of Fire and Rescue staff did not receive notification advising a unified command post was being established until 7:18 a.m. on Jan. 4, Assistant Chief Matt Smolsky said. 

As reported previously by the Mercury, the inability to pre-treat the roadway because of rain caused more ice and snow buildup, which made the state’s response more difficult. Calls for a full-scale after-action report started soon after the standstill, with Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, calling for the Northam and Youngkin administrations to work together to investigate why the highway shutdown lasted more than 24 hours. Immediately after the storm Northam was asked why he hadn’t issued an emergency declaration. He responded that “a state of emergency, that deals with resources, mainly financial resources, we have those available right now.”

But the Post’s reporting revealed that Northam’s office had emailed VDEM about 11 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 3 asking the agency to let them know if and when a state of emergency order was needed. It never came, though when snow threatened again just before his term ended, Northam was quick to declare a state of emergency

So far, new Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has issued two state of emergencies in advance of winter storms, though none of them have been nearly as harsh as the storm that hit near the end of Northam’s term in office. 

“Our preparedness has been and continues to be a priority,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said. “He is encouraged by the state’s response over the last three weather events.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jackie Llanos Hernandez
Jackie Llanos Hernandez

Jackie Llanos Hernandez was a Virginia Mercury intern while studying journalism and anthropology at University of Richmond. Jackie grew up in Colombia before moving to Virginia. Jackie is also the investigative and multimedia editor at the independent student-run newspaper, The Collegian.