Commentary

Frozen: Report on Va.’s response to I-95 hellscape on ice is fitting epilogue to Northam’s term

April 11, 2022 12:02 am

Former Gov. Ralph Northam’s “homespun, hands-off and unhurried persona didn’t serve him well” during times when Virginians wanted to see their governor taking charge, says columnist Bob Lewis. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The knock on former Gov. Ralph Northam was that he tended not to address problems until they bit him in his derriere, and even then only after considerable embarrassment.

Now, three months after Dr. Northam resumed his pediatric neurology practice, an independent after-action assessment shows that a combination of problems left him poorly informed about a snowstorm that caused 833 accidents and stranded 819 vehicles across Virginia, much of it on Interstate 95, for more than 24 hours in subfreezing temperatures three days into 2022.

The truth is, according to the report, freakish weather extremes that turned remarkably hostile with almost no warning compounded by technical and communications failures at the operational level plus human limitations created a largely undeserved public relations debacle in the governor’s final days.

Governors don’t have a button in their offices that can shoo away bad weather or other disasters. Nor do they have lights and sirens that alert them in advance of unforeseeable catastrophes, allowing them to brace for what the late Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once called “unknown unknowns.”

But they respond in different ways. Mark Warner, for example, seemed perpetually overcaffeinated and held his staff to account for knowing about not just predictable threats but conditions or trends that could potentially lead to one. The idea that he would be seen as being behind the curve haunted him.

Other governors also tended to lean into “over preparedness” at times. Days after Gov. Bob McDonnell was inaugurated in January of 2010 as what was forecast to be a major blizzard descended on Virginia, I encamped with his staff to report firsthand on the commonwealth’s response from the top echelon of power. The storm turned out to be a dud, closing a bunch of schools for a day or two at worst, but the National Guard was on alert and all available staff from the State Police, the Department of Emergency Management and the Department of Transportation were at battle stations ahead of the storm.

For Northam, the circumstances were almost inverse. What was predicted as a pedestrian weather event coming hard on the heels of near-record warm New Year’s Day temperatures caught everyone by surprise almost up to the point that it turned massively destructive over a 50-mile swath of Virginia between Washington, D.C., and Richmond. Given the benign forecast, Northam didn’t preemptively declare an emergency. By the time the full gravity of the situation became clear from fragmentary reports of overworked, desperate police and transportation crews in the field, it was too late for Northam to do much except try and mitigate suffering.

Northam was pilloried for not activating the Virginia National Guard with hundreds of people trapped in their vehicles overnight for more than 40 miles with overnight lows in the low- to mid-teens. Remarkably, no deaths or serious injuries were attributed to the jam. But, as the report’s timeline notes, the crisis was nearly a day old before the state’s top leadership realized its full enormity. By then, there was little to nothing the Guard could do given the approximately 24 hours it takes citizen soldiers to muster and deploy.

As National Guard spokesman Cotton Puryear told the Mercury’s Graham Moomaw last week, the Guard has limited quick reaction capabilities without advance staging requests from localities or the governor.

“Reading the report, there’s nothing that sticks out to me as a smoking gun,” said Bill Leighty, who as chief of staff to former governors Warner and Tim Kaine ably quarterbacked responses to some of the state’s worst crises. That included Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the sniper attacks of 2002 and the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007. “Just a calamity of a bunch of events happening at the same time.”

Indeed, the report chronicles, it was Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong will – on steroids.

Before the weather turned cold, unstinting rains made it impossible to pre-treat pavement to inhibit snow and ice. Traffic volumes were about 65 percent heavier than average on the East Coast’s busiest traffic artery because of people returning from holiday trips and flights canceled because of COVID-19 and weather. Trees bent, broke and toppled under the weight of the wet, fast-falling snow and high winds, making alternate routes impassable and leaving half a million Dominion Energy customers without electricity. Power outages also took cellular towers offline and disabled VDOT traffic cameras, depriving the agency and top leadership of intelligence necessary to assess the scope of the crisis. It was difficult for emergency vehicles and tow trucks to reach disabled vehicles and their marooned occupants because of the volume of vehicles clogging the freeway in both directions. And the number of tow truck operators was limited by spiking numbers of employees who were infected with or exposed to the coronavirus.

No governor can overcome that much fresh hell. But, the report states, there were blunders. It faults clumsy communications with desperate motorists well into the disaster that only heightened their angst, particularly a Jan. 4 mid-morning VDOT text alert that promised state and local teams would arrive soon to rescue them. When that didn’t happen, drivers vented their anger on social media platforms, the report notes. Among them was an unamused Sen. Kaine, whose drive from Richmond to Capitol Hill expanded from the normal two or three hours to 27. He tweeted a photo of the rear of a big rig stopped feet in front of him in the frozen gridlock.

Most of the vituperation stuck to Northam. And it’s easy to understand why given his handling of two significant scandals that had already rocked the final year of his term.

Northam’s administration seemed paralyzed during the Virginia Employment Commission’s utter failure to cope with a tsunami of jobless claims from desperate Virginians suddenly unemployed because of the pandemic lockdown.

The VEC had struggled to keep pace with unemployment claims in the best of times, but when the pandemic forced businesses to shutter and pushed hundreds of thousands of Virginians into unemployment, the agency was disastrously unfunctional for months on end, according to a report last November by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s investigative arm.

It took a lawsuit and a tersely worded order by U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson to force VEC to bulk up its operations and respond to tens of thousands of frantic claimants facing financial ruin who couldn’t get VEC to even answer their repeated calls or emails.

Northam left office having never replaced anyone in VEC’s leadership.

When questions arose about the actions of the Parole Board in freeing violent inmates — including a cop killer — to thin out inmate populations in crowded prisons at the dawn of the pandemic, allegedly with insufficient legally required notice to victims’ survivors, Team Northam circled its wagons against public and media criticism and instead started hunting down leaks and whistleblowers. The Parole Board and its leadership, meanwhile, remained intact.

Virginians want to see their governors engaged and in charge in times of crisis, the way Jim Gilmore was on Sept. 11, 2001, when the Pentagon was among terrorists’ targets, and the way Kaine was 15 years ago when, hours after landing in Tokyo for a trade mission, Leighty woke him with news of the unfolding Virginia Tech massacre, and Kaine boarded the next commercial flight home.

Northam’s homespun, hands-off and unhurried persona didn’t serve him well in those two scandals and it prejudiced perceptions of his handling of the I-95 hellscape on ice. It didn’t help Northam that he lashed out at respected Capitol Square radio correspondent Matt Demlein when he pressed the then-governor on the fiasco in a live interview.

The report does not place blame on Northam — or any specific person or institution, for that matter — and neither does Leighty, after reading the 41-page assessment.

“It wasn’t a failure of leadership, it was a failure of communication from the mid-level upwards,” Leighty said. “They weren’t getting the intelligence on what was happening on the ground but, in my opinion, they should have been a little bit more engaged than they were.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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