A winter storm stranded hundreds of drivers and passengers on Interstate 95 in early January. (Virginia Department of Transportation)
One of the first ideas proposed in Virginia after a January snowstorm left thousands of motorists stranded overnight on Interstate 95, some for nearly 24 hours, was a law requiring tractor-trailers to stay in the right-hand lane during winter storms.
After pushback from the trucking industry and concerns it might create a wall of trucks that would block other vehicles from getting on or off the highway, the proposal was scaled down to only prohibit truckers from using cruise control or compression brakes in wintry weather, while specifying police can’t enforce those rules by pulling truckers over.
If signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the bill would mostly send a signal to truckers to drive cautiously around snow, sleet or ice to prevent the jack-knife crashes that contributed to the total shutdown of a major highway on a frigid night just after New Year’s Day.
“Generally speaking, the truckers got the message,” said Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the bill as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “A little good came of it.”
Three months after the I-95 fiasco, with most of the General Assembly’s work for the year nearly wrapped up, state policymakers just received a state-commissioned report delving into what went wrong and what can be done to avoid a repeat the next time a snowstorm hits. There were no deaths or serious injuries during the highway blockage, which stretched 40 miles from the Fredericksburg area to Northern Virginia.
The 41-page report, completed for $79,427 by a consulting firm that has an ongoing contract with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, concluded the state government “collectively lost situational awareness” of how bad the blockages were in an event that stretched over two days. But it largely validates state officials’ explanations that the unusual weather (rain and warmth followed by rapid snow and fast-dropping temperatures) created “cascading challenges” that severely limited how the state could respond.
Those problems, according to the report, included power outages that knocked out traffic cameras, a faulty generator at a Virginia State Police communications center, “inoperable cell towers,” the state’s real-time traffic information system crashing and failing to update for four hours and the lack of a readily available state helicopter that could have given officials a better view of how bad the traffic backups were.
With greater situational awareness of the incident across the state, VDOT and VSP could have sooner employed targeted measures, such as blocking ramps leading onto I-95, calling in additional towing resources, sending snowplows against traffic, and pulling cars to nearby commuter lots to reduce towing cycle times.
– From the report by CNA, an Arlington firm focused on public safety
Heavy snow, high traffic volumes and disabled vehicles, the report said, impeded the Virginia Department of Transportation’s ability to plow, and the preceding rain meant the highway couldn’t be pre-treated with anti-icing chemicals.
The review details all the efforts state officials made to warn drivers to stay off the roads as the storm approached, while faulting the communications that went out after the crisis was underway for giving little consideration to “drivers’ emotional well-being or perspective.” In a “misleading” text alert VDOT sent out at 9:14 a.m. on Jan. 4, the report found, the agency told drivers: “State and locals coming ASAP with supplies & to move you.”
“Stranded drivers mistakenly interpreted the alert to mean that emergency workers would soon be coming car-to-car on I-95,” the report says. “When they did not, many took to social media to vent their frustration.”
The state could improve its response to similar crises in the future, the report suggested, through better internal and external communication, stronger plans for large-scale highway shutdowns, identification of facilities on the I-95 corridor where state personnel can work together to coordinate the response and being better equipped to make use of public social media posts to understand what drivers are experiencing.
“With greater situational awareness of the incident across the state, VDOT and VSP could have sooner employed targeted measures, such as blocking ramps leading onto I-95, calling in additional towing resources, sending snowplows against traffic, and pulling cars to nearby commuter lots to reduce towing cycle times (rather than towing them to normal locations further away),” the report says.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin said the report showed clear failures of preparation and communication and he’s made it clear he expects better during his adminstration. Youngkin issued multiple emergency declarations in January in advance of winter storms.
“We’re going to continue to do the exact same thing,” Youngkin told reporters at an unrelated bill-signing event this week. “We’re going to overprepare, overcommunicate and overexecute.”
In statements accompanying the report’s release, leaders from VDOT, State Police and VDEM said it would help guide future responses.
“Our on-road messaging, snow-clearing resource staging and partner engagement are all areas in which we are exploring new approaches to improve our response,” Virginia Commissioner of Highways Stephen Brich said in a news release last Friday.
The report’s opening page notes the review was “not an investigation or a search for a person or entity upon which to lay blame.”
“In our collective experience, we have never seen an example when one moment — or one person — was solely responsible for what happened during the response to an incident,” says the report, completed by Arlington-based CNA, a research firm that focuses on public safety and security issues.
The review was requested by former transportation secretary Shannon Valentine and former public safety secretary Brian Moran, both of whom served under former Gov. Ralph Northam. The consultants did not interview Valentine and Moran for the report, though they were the cabinet-level officials who oversaw the agencies most involved in the storm response. The hazardous conditions began early in the day on Jan. 3, but the Northam administration didn’t fully grasp the severity of the crisis until around 5 a.m. on Jan. 4, according to the Washington Post.
Why the Virginia National Guard wasn’t mobilized
Asked why the review didn’t include interviews with members of the Northam administration involved in transportation and public safety, a CNA spokeswoman said the consulting firm was focused on “operations-based analysis.”
“Our interviews were focused on staff at each agency directly involved with the operational response,” said CNA spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro. The review also didn’t include interviews with motorists about what they experienced, but Cordeiro said the CNA team “reviewed hundreds of social media posts to better understand the driver experience.”
Because Northam didn’t issue a pre-emptive emergency declaration after officials decided the forecast wasn’t dire enough to require one, the report found, there was no way to mobilize the Virginia National Guard in time to assist stranded motorists, many of whom spent the night on the cold highway with limited food and water.
“Even if the Virginia National Guard had been activated during the storm, once the state agencies understood the extent of the backup (on January 3 or 4), the Virginia National Guard would have had little to no impact on the situation already in progress,” the report says.
Marsden said he’s interested in exploring whether there might be faster ways to get the Guard prepped to respond to emergencies officials can’t always foresee.
“Nobody thought it was a big deal,” he said. “And boy it was a big deal.”
Cotton Puryear, a spokesman for the Virginia National Guard, said the Guard has limited “quick reaction capabilities” if there are no advance staging requests from localities or the state.
“The key to rapid response is staging VNG resources in advance of potential weather impacts, so capability requests must be received at VDEM before the weather impacts begin,” Puryear said. “The VNG does not have snow plows to help clear roads, and our recovery vehicles are designed for military equipment not civilian cars or tractor trailers. While we have tactical vehicles capable of getting through deep snow, the routes of travel can’t be blocked by stranded vehicles.”
In a statement to the Mercury, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who spent more than 27 hours on the highway after getting stuck while driving from Richmond to D.C., said he was glad to see the state had “conducted a thorough analysis of the jam.”
“Being stranded on a frozen highway for dozens of hours is dangerous, and we should do everything we can to avoid another crisis like the one hundreds of Virginians and I experienced on I-95,” Kaine said.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, who previously called on state officials to give clear accounting of what had gone wrong with the storm response, said she appreciated the report’s “clear recommendations for preventing similar mistakes.”
“This report gives the Commonwealth a clear opportunity to learn and improve — and I’m encouraged by steps the Youngkin administration has taken to prepare for recent storms since taking office, such as issuing preemptive emergency declarations,” Spanberger said in a written statement. “In the future, I hope that VDOT, the Virginia State Police, and VDEM can work together to build on the progress demonstrated by these successful, coordinated efforts.”
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