Snowy chaos worsened by poor regional coordination, officials say

Many people found themselves without power after a January storm and headed to Starbucks to recharge both themselves and their electronics.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 8:01 PM

The massive gridlock caused by Wednesday's snowstorm so alarmed government leaders across the Washington area that they say they will reevaluate plans for winter weather, evacuation and transportation.

After commuters reported being stuck in their cars for hours - 13, in one woman's case - elected officials in the city and suburbs said the storm's crippling impact indicates that the region remains woefully unprepared not only for the next storm but also for any event that could require large numbers of people to be on the move at the same time.

"To me, this is not about snow," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), vice chairman of the _blankMetropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "It's about emergency preparedness and even national security. . . . We failed when it came to people leaving the city, and this wasn't even an evacuation."

Plans that might be targeted for improvement include ongoing coordination through the course of weather or emergency events, the insistence and frequency of communication with the public, and how robustly regionwide conditions should be monitored.

Local emergency managers described Wednesday's storm as one of the most harrowing events they can recall since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon. The storm rapidly coated almost every major commuter route in ice and snow, they said, and a quick succession of collisions, jackknifed tractor-trailers and stuck vehicles cascaded through the region's transportation network.

In the District, efforts to clear downtown streets might have been slowed because, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said, the city's 70 traffic-control officers were used to help plow snow off city streets. This placed the responsibility of keeping intersections moving freely on the already overburdened police. Gray said the city will have to reevaluate that policy.

But the problems extended far beyond, creating what a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency said was a traffic jam from north of Baltimore through Northern Virginia.

"We have to put our minds together and see if we might be able to come up with some reasonable ways to deal with this," spokesman Ed McDonough said.

Officials said Wednesday's events underscore that the current regional snow plans - which were refined after back-to-back storms in February - continue to fall short. The region's response to Wednesday's storm also is renewing debate about when and how government leaders should instruct people to shelter in place instead of hitting the roads during extreme weather or emergencies.

Currently, when at least an inch of snow is in the forecast, _blankthe Council of Governments organizes a conference call among 17 local governments, the National Weather Service and the federal _blankOffice of Personnel Management to discuss whether schools and government offices will close and how highways will be treated.

But COG officials said the regional snow plan does not address how local governments should work together once a storm begins. This leaves it up to each jurisdiction to make decisions such as which roads should be closed and whether that information needs to be shared with the public or a neighboring jurisdiction. Mendelson said he hoped the group could begin addressing problems at its March 9 meeting.

On Wednesday, officials said, part of the District's gridlock was caused by problems that originated in Virginia or Maryland, such as a 4 p.m. accident on Interstate 395 that backed up traffic on the 14th Street Bridge. At times, officials said, it was difficult to determine the best routes to recommend to motorists.

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