I-95 snowstorm: Virginia agencies failed to see depth of collapse, report says

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The 41-page report concludes a three-month investigation into one of the Washington area’s worst travel debacles since a 2011 snowstorm created a traffic jam during an overnight rush. The January storm also raised questions about the National Capital Region’s ability to deal with an even greater emergency.

The report cites a list of factors that contributed to the outage, including power outages that destroyed traffic cameras, road conditions that hampered monitoring and reporting, and a “geographical misalignment” in the center of Virginia, where various bureaucratic boundaries drawn by agencies have hampered in-person contact. coordination.

As heavy snowfall began to fall early on January 3, reports of stranded motorists poured into VDOT’s consumer service center and 911 systems, while motorists posted on social media that traffic was halted . State officials were not prepared to effectively leverage this information, according to the report.

This information could have helped state officials understand the seriousness of the issues, but there was “no plan, procedure, or policy to guide ‘how state agencies’ could validate and use these sources. of non-traditional data to quickly form a common operational picture”. says the report. “In return, the information was not transmitted to the management of the agency in real time.”

The storm, which dropped about 12 inches of snow in the area, quickly overwhelmed snow removal crews on the hilly stretch of the highway. Several crashes in the Fredericksburg area, some involving jackknifed tractor-trailers, contributed to the chaos, but it wasn’t until the next morning that Virginia officials officially closed the lane.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) became the most high-profile motorist trapped overnight on his way to Washington from Richmond. His two-hour journey turned into almost 27 hours.

The review, which did not blame the collapse, fueled political accusations at the highest levels of Virginia government. Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) blamed the administration of his predecessor, Democrat Ralph Northam, saying officials were unprepared for the severity of the storm.

“This report demonstrates that the storm changed in intensity and left Virginians and travelers stranded on I-95, management of the previous administration did not properly prepare or communicate,” Youngkin said in a statement. communicated.

No one from the Northam administration was interviewed for the report except those who remained in state service, such as State Police Superintendent Gary T. Settle, according to two former officials. Northam who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid the dispute.

The two officials took issue with the tone and substance of a cover letter to Youngkin from Transportation Secretary W. Sheppard Miller III and Public Safety Secretary Robert Mosier, saying it contained inaccuracies not found in the report, including a statement that Northam and his staff never asked his cabinet secretaries if an emergency declaration was necessary.

“While this storm presented some challenges and the unforeseen nature of the storm’s strength provided a series of unfortunate events, there were several opportunities to mitigate the impact of the event if choices and decisions criticisms had been made in a timely manner,” Miller and Mosier wrote to Youngkin.

The two Northam officials said the governor’s office asked the secretaries of transportation and public safety that morning if they expected to need an emergency declaration and asked Settle the next day. morning. All said no, according to Northam officials. Settle declined to comment Friday through state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.

An email obtained by The Washington Post shows Northam chief of staff Clark Mercer following up on an emergency declaration shortly before noon on January 3.

“Curtis, you have indicated that you do not anticipate an emergency declaration for this storm,” Mercer wrote to Curtis C. Brown, state coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. “If that changes, be sure to start the process early.”

The Post — through state records and in interviews with state and local officials, highway and emergency management experts, and stranded motorists — found in January that internal communication glitches, messages botched public and holes in the state’s emergency response added to the confusion.

It took more than 20 hours for the highest levels of Virginia government, including Northam and his transportation secretary, Shannon Valentine, to realize the depth of the crisis unfolding on I-95, The Post found. Valentine did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the report.

The report says that despite miscommunications that unfolded throughout the event, messaging also gave motorists false hope.

At 9.14am on January 4 – after distraught motorists were trapped overnight without help or clear information – authorities decided to send a wireless emergency alert to nearby motorists. Alerts are short emergency messages from federal, state or local authorities that can be sent to cell phones in a targeted area.

“I-95 Drivers: State and Residents Arrive ASAP with supplies and to move you www.virginiadot.org,” it read. But the report said the message was misleading and turned out to be misleading. “a particular cause of frustration” for those who received it.

“Stranded drivers misinterpreted the alert to mean rescuers would soon be coming car-to-car on I-95. When they didn’t, many took to social media to vent their frustration,” the report said.

It was one of several communication breakdowns detailed in the report.

Virginia’s 511 system — which could have helped convey the severity of the conditions as the problems worsened on Jan. 3 — stopped updating between 7:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., the report said. Meanwhile, interest in the site was growing, with tens of thousands of attempts to access the 511 website that day.

Traffic operations center personnel were sending information into a system known as VaTraffic, which 511 relies on for data, but “system updates did not include new entries,” according to the report. He added that “the reported reason for the system failure was excessive load, which caused the system to crash.”

Local 911 dispatchers were inundated with calls from stranded motorists: a father stuck with a baby called for help as his car ran out of gas. A wife was worried because her diabetic husband hadn’t eaten for hours. A young woman was returning to college in North Carolina, scared after a night alone. A 93-year-old man traveling in Florida embarked on a 39-hour odyssey through Virginia, lost on backcountry roads with dwindling gas supply and a dying cellphone battery .

According to the report, the storm resulted in 833 accidents and 819 vehicle breakdowns, leaving some drivers stranded for more than 24 hours.

The VDOT had limited access to resources partly due to the pandemic, according to the report. The contractors who provide the agency’s snow removal had fewer staff members working due to the growing variant of the omicron. The report also revealed that some VDOT districts were experiencing shortages of field staff due to infections and exposure.

In other cases, road conditions prevented staff from reporting to work, while some employees were unavailable due to the bank holiday weekend.

Although the VDOT and State Police have “a wealth of experience and demonstrate strong coordination and collaboration,” the report says, it concludes that their experiences in handling smaller incidents do not prepared them for the large-scale response needed on January 3.

The analysis recommended that the state improve communications with the public and develop additional sources of emergency communication. It also suggests that the state provide crisis communications training to help craft messages that provide “clear and reassuring direction with empathy, and that encourage the public to act in a way that is helpful to the response.” The state should also analyze increased tractor-trailer traffic on freeways and the effects on traffic to ensure adjustments can be made during snow removal, the report said.

Greater awareness of the incident across the state would have allowed the VDOT and state police to respond earlier, the report said, including blocking ramps leading to the freeway and “calling in resources from additional towing, sending snowplows against traffic and pulling cars towards nearby commuters, much to reduce tow cycle times.

Valentine, the former transportation secretary, told the Post in January that she received a call from the state highway commissioner at 4:52 a.m. on Jan. 4 that I-95 was impassable. She said she then informed Northam through her chief of staff. The highway officially closed shortly after, at 5:15 a.m.

“There was a breakdown on 95,” Valentine said in a January interview.

In the letter to Youngkin, Miller and Mosier wrote that the “lessons learned are clear,” adding that leadership teams should be built early and often, engaged at the highest levels. Other lessons, they said, are to allow agencies to “over-plan” while ensuring they have contingency plans in place.

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