A winter storm stranded hundreds of drivers and passengers on Interstate 95 in early January. (Virginia Department of Transportation)
State officials kept a list of preventive measures for dealing with a major snowstorm on the shelf. They issued promises of help to desperate, stranded motorists that they couldn’t keep.
Those were two of the most damning findings of the newly released audit by the Office of the State Inspector General of Virginia’s response to the Jan. 3-4 snow and ice storm on Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg. Some families were stuck on the roadway for around 24 hours.
The audit criticized the state police, transportation and emergency management agencies. The saga was a stunning display of ineptitude and futility by then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s outgoing administration.
Northam should be glad he wasn’t running for office soon after; he would’ve had a snowball’s chance in Hades of winning.
The new audit repeated some of the shortcomings cited in a previous report completed by CNA, a consulting firm that has an ongoing contract with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. The audit, though, is harsher in criticizing state agencies for how they handled the storm, which dumped more than a foot of snow.
No one suggests planning for that freak incident was easy. Or that after several tractor-trailers jackknifed, clearing I-95 would’ve been simple. The blockage eventually engulfed a 40-mile stretch in Northern Virginia.
Many new snow removal contractors hadn’t undergone typical training yet. Spring-like weather before the storm hit “may have caused the traveling public to discount the chance of significant winter weather,” the audit said.
First it rained, making pre-treatment ineffective or impossible. Snow fell fast. Temperatures then dropped, creating icy roads. Communications didn’t clearly tell motorists to avoid travel on I-95, or messages provided bad info. Traffic cameras lost power.
Motorists who tried to depart major interstates for side routes in Virginia faced another set of challenges. As the CNA report noted, “the primary and secondary roads that surround I-95 (such as I-64 and Routes US 1, US 3, US 301 and US 17) were all unpassable or barely passable at different times” on Jan. 3 “due to car accidents, downed wires and trees and snow-covered roads.”
The audit seemed to take pains not to blame Northam, who was less than two weeks from leaving office, or his administration for declining to declare a state of emergency beforehand. Early weather forecasts had suggested the declaration wasn’t needed.
What was unforgivable, though, was their failure to follow the lessons learned during a similar snowstorm in December 2018 on Interstate 81 near Bristol. The Virginia Department of Transportation report after that incident included recommendations that could have helped during the January storm but officials neglected.
Why undertake such reports if you’re going to ignore them? That’s a waste of time, effort and taxpayer money. No one wants to see the 2022 audit stay on a shelf, either.
I asked a spokeswoman for Gov. Glenn Youngkin how his administration would respond to major snowfalls and prevent a repeat of the January fiasco.
“The governor and the administration have successfully weathered three snow-related events, mitigated risks, and ensured appropriate resources were available for our response teams, and they performed well,” said Macaulay Porter.
“The Governor appreciates the OSIG’s performance audit of the January 3-4, 2022 Northam Administration snow incident,” she added – in case the latter wasn’t clear already.
Under Youngkin’s leadership, Porter noted that snow events, like the one following his inauguration, “were managed to the standard of preparing for worst-case scenarios as opposed to under-preparing for snow emergency events.”
Of course, the situation in early January was rare. It affected a major north-south thoroughfare along the East Coast. Youngkin’s folks should hope they never face the same set of harrowing, changing circumstances.
Wilfrid Nixon is a former University of Iowa engineering professor who researched the effects of weather on transportation. He also is the founder and president of the Professional Snowfighters Association, a nonprofit trade organization.
Nixon told me that, as OSIG’s audit in Virginia recommends, it could be an asset to add snow response planning to the state’s emergency management mix. Currently, the closest thing Virginia has are what it calls “general (all-hazard) emergency plans for natural disasters.”
Yet Virginia isn’t an outlier on that issue. Most states, Nixon said, forgo such snow planning and instead focus on disasters like floods, hurricanes and tornadoes.
He also sympathized with state officials who were trying to deal with the aberrant incident.
“It was somewhat of a black swan event. … When a storm begins with rain, you take away a lot of the effective tools in winter weather,” Nixon noted.
“It would’ve been a bad storm anyway,” he continued. “But when you have a bad storm, without resources – particularly personnel – it becomes doubly difficult.”
When the state sent out a wireless message during the storm saying, “I-95 Drivers: State & locals coming ASAP with supplies & to move you. www.virginiadot.org,” and didn’t follow through quickly, it lost loads of credibility. You shouldn’t provide false hope in such dire circumstances.
We don’t like to prepare for the worst. We’d rather hope for the best – as Pollyannish as that can be.
State officials, though, don’t have that luxury. At the very least, they must dust off old reports and apply their lessons.
Or the (wintry) past will repeat itself.
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