Snowy chaos worsened by poor regional coordination, officials say

By Tim Craig
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.

For David F. Snyder, Falls Church vice mayor who has focused on emergency preparedness as a COG member, the chaos highlighted the need for the creation of a "central incident-management center" where officials from throughout the region could huddle and be empowered to issue regionwide orders to the public.

"How many of these things do we have to have in the Washington region to figure out it's not working?" Snyder said, adding that London has a regionwide center. "Presumably, with this storm starting at 4 p.m., you could have told people: 'You better leave by 2 p.m. And if you don't want to leave, be prepared to stay in your offices awhile.' "

Other government leaders are skeptical of the approach, citing budget constraints and difficulty in getting state or D.C. officials to cede some of their power to others.

"I don't doubt it's possible we can do . . . better, but one question would be, who's in charge?" said Arlington County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D).

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, leaders working with COG created the _blankMetropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination Program, which monitors traffic conditions on both sides of the Potomac River and informs authorities of potential trouble spots. But officials said the program, which took years to create and, some say, is not properly funded, did not appear to be well suited to keep ahead of Wednesday's storm.

Christopher Voss, head of the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management, said a more regional approach to the storm probably would not have lessened its impact.

"You could try to create this perfect center . . . but you would have to put it out in West Virginia somewhere," to keep it away from the area of impact in a serious disaster or attack, Voss said. "Do you want people in the perfect center in West Virginia managing traffic out in Arlington?"

But emergency managers across the region said they will use Wednesday's storm to evaluate when to ask people to stay indoors, whether cars should be required to have all-season or snow tires during snow emergencies, and whether restrictions should be placed on local tractor-trailers in adverse conditions.

"We are all going to be . . . having meetings to try to figure out what we can do better," McDonough said. "But quite frankly, what can we do but pray the snow doesn't hit at rush hour?"

Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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