The debacle along the East Coast’s busiest freeway raised questions about the state’s disaster preparedness and led to two investigations and calls for emergency protocol changes. It was one of the region’s worst travel crises since a 2011 snowstorm caused extensive traffic jams around Washington during the evening rush.
The three main agencies responding to weather-related emergencies on state roads — the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management — said they had increased training and revised policies while working on corrective actions that could by the inspector general of Virginia in the episode.
“VDOT is committed to continuously improving our practices to achieve our mission during snowstorms – to protect travelers and workers,” said VDOT spokeswoman Marshall Herman.
How the East Coast’s busiest highway unraveled: 36 hours of confusion and misery on I-95
When heavy rain fell in the early hours of January 3, articulated lorries swayed on hilly routes, snow removal teams were overwhelmed and motorists were left stranded without assistance. Freeway traffic cameras went dark and overhead signs did not clearly tell drivers to avoid the freeway ahead, even as it became impassable. It wasn’t until early the next morning that Virginia leaders officially closed the road.
State officials attributed the incident to the challenging conditions of a storm that hit much of the state with more snow than expected. Traffic camera outages and patchy cellphone service left emergency responders unable to assess road conditions, which quickly became dangerous amid heavy business traffic and travelers making their way down the corridor after the New Year’s weekend.
“Sometimes you can have all the plans in the world, but Mother Nature will throw you a curveball. And in this case, it was just the worst possible situation,” said State Senator David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “That was a lesson to be learned.”
After that frigid 36 hours in January, Virginia declared a state of emergency before storms more quickly, leading to a quicker response in deploying resources. State transportation officials said this approach also helps streamline communications between the transportation, police and emergency management agencies responsible for the storm response.
Plans for this winter call for more “clear and actionable” messages to the public and, when warranted, Herman said, “more aggressive messages encouraging motorists to avoid travel.”
Audit: Va. did not use lessons learned from previous snowstorms to avoid a meltdown on I-95
An August report from the Office of the Inspector General criticized the VDOT’s communication with the public as ineffective, noting that the embassies did not clearly state the need to avoid traveling on I-95 or, in some cases, provided inaccurate information.
The IG report issued 18 corrective actions to state agencies to improve response protocols that could alleviate problems in future storms. Officials from VDOT, VDEM and the state police said they were working to finalize the recommendations, some of which have a year-end deadline.
“We have and will continue to encourage emergency preparedness alerts for all hazards, including snow events,” said Lauren Opett, a spokeswoman for VDEM, who is responsible for providing resources to communities and government agencies during and after an emergency.
Opett said the agency is working to complete “a full assessment of our plans, policies and procedures.” She declined to give further details, citing ongoing work to implement the inspector general’s corrective actions.
6 reasons conditions on I-95 worsened during the Jan. 3 snow storm
According to motorist advocates, it is also important that local residents are prepared for such scenarios during wintry weather. For road trips, experts recommend drivers keep an eye on the weather along the entire route and be flexible to take a detour or weather out storms.
Experts also recommend drivers to have an emergency kit on hand at any time of the year, which can come in handy when traffic slows down after a serious collision. According to the AAA, 40 percent of American drivers do not have an emergency kit in their vehicles.
In winter, an emergency kit should include first aid supplies, drinking water, snacks, a flashlight with extra batteries, jumper cables, warm gloves, clothing, hats, and blankets. Gas tanks should not be less than a quarter full and a cell phone and charger should be accessible.
“It’s important to be prepared,” said Ragina Ali, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “I hope incidents like this have resulted in people carrying an emergency kit in their vehicle. Unfortunately, they’re painful reminders of how important it is to actually have one with you.”
Ali said travelers should follow social media accounts or websites of the state departments of transportation they travel to. In return, she said agencies should “do their best to inform motorists of what to expect in terms of the weather … and also advise motorists to stay off the roads” when necessary.
VDOT said it is conducting a “multi-pronged review” of its state, county and local messaging systems, while employees have received preparatory training that emphasizes improved messaging. The state’s 511 system, a key source of traffic information that remained relatively quiet during January’s storm, is receiving an upgrade that is expected to be complete next year, Herman said.
The state has also purchased a new system to allow two-way communication between drivers and VDOT crews in emergencies. A new service, due to launch in December, will provide commercial vehicles with in-cab safety alerts during weather events. The state has also partnered with Waze to provide emergency updates, officials said.
VDOT’s nine Districts have also identified additional locations to stage demolition vehicles and snowplows, particularly where work zones affect movement in the area.
Virginia authorities could not determine the depth of the meltdown on I-95, the report said
VDOT also plans to make more staff available to drive routes and report on conditions, prioritizing areas where traffic cameras are no longer available. On the recommendation of the Inspector General, VDOT is also investigating the use of backup power for highway cameras, although these plans are still in the early stages.
The Virginia State Police said they have acquired several drones equipped with cameras that can assess traffic incidents and identify traffic bottlenecks and detour routes, particularly in locations where VDOT cameras are not available.
VDOT said each of its districts will establish its own “district command” during major weather events, enabling local leadership to better report to the agency’s headquarters in Richmond.
State police are reviewing emergency response measures and procedures to ensure they meet recommendations from two inquiries into the storm. Spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the agency has also changed its communications policy so that its superintendent’s office is kept informed of critical incidents and “significant unusual occurrences”.
The three agencies continue to work on a plan to deal with long-term closures and provide assistance to stranded motorists, officials said, with instructions on how to coordinate wellness checks and alert motorists when necessary via text messaging software already used in Pennsylvania and New Jersey . Immediately, police began flagging agencies in neighboring states when posting about conditions on social media.
Marsden said he is confident that Virginia state agencies and leaders will be ready to face severe storms and have learned from the problems that surfaced along I-95 in January.
“What you’re likely to see from the administration this winter is over-vigilance,” he said. “We learned from that. I think we will do better.”