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Snow gridlock traps commuters: AAA updates situation

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John Townsend
Manager, Public and Governement Affairs, AAA Mid-Atlantic
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 10:00 AM

Stuck. On the George Washington Parkway. On 16th Street NW. Interstate 66, too.

Buses, cars, people - just plain stuck as snow, sleet and ice covered roadways and knocked down trees across the region, turning last night's commute into a seemingly endless nightmare.

John Townsend, manager of public and government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic, was online Thursday, Jan. 27, at 10 a.m. ET to update commuters about current conditions on the roadways and rail systems.


John Townsend: Good morning, we are all safe and sound now after a protracted commute in, but it was not nearly as terrible as it was last evening. If anything, last night commute was the commute from hell. This morning, by contrast, was heavenly, as it were. We are ready to take your questions now.


Woodbridge, Va.: There must be parallel universes. I work at 21st and Penn. At 4:30 p.m. (which I thought was late), I went to Springfield on Metro to catch the Prince William county commuter bus. Metro came quickly and was not crowded. After making it to the bus, eventually clearing my car of snow and driving home in the storm (even stopping for cat food along the way), I arrived in my driveway by 7 p.m. How on earth were people taking 5 or more HOURS to get home in what was certainly not a blizzard?

John Townsend: Hello Woodbridge, The storm was called the "thunder-snow" which was like a summer thunderstorm, as it were. So the snow was falling at two inches an hour. It was something we have never seen before. Secondly, most of us tried to leave the office at the same time. We have three million workers in the Washington metro area, some 1.7 million who still drive to work alone and another 300,000 who like you take the metro bus. So it is a parallel universe. With everyone hitting the exits at the same time, it was the worst gridlock we have seen in years. I am glad you made it home.


Abandon your cars NOW!!!!: What is it with people just leaving their cars in the middle of everything? Would some of you write in and tell the rest of us just what you were/are thinking?? Of all the things that foul roads, this is the worst. Followed closely by those who deliberately enter a clogged intersection and further clog it ...

John Townsend: It reminds us on the verse from Dante's Dante's Divine Comedy.

"Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here."

People do strange things when they panic or are in despair. They abandoned their cars because they had abandoned any hope of getting home, after being snowbound, or after being stuck in traffic for hours on end. We have reports of six to eight hours commute. We all have reports on people who endured 12 hours commutes.

The trouble is, the snow begam falling at rush hour, turning normally clogged area roads into treacherous ones.


Washington, D.C.: I have been trying to contact PEPCO to report a downed branch on an electic wire, no way to contact their phone line. Any recommendations?

John Townsend: 195,000 Pepco customers were without power in the storm's aftermath, many still are. Pepco is reporting, " combination of heavy wet snow, wind and lightning that ripped through the Washington Metropolitan Region has caused a large number of power outages. Pepco monitored weather conditions and prepositioned crews at our Rockville and Forestville Service Centers in anticipation of power outages."

The company is also informing us: "Additional customer service representatives have been added, however we continue to ask that our customers call 1-877-PEPCO-62 or -877-737-2662 for outages and to report downed wires." Hope this helps.


Washington, D.C.: What's the status on GW Parkway? Will it be drivable at some point? Thanks!

John Townsend: The Park Police is currently towing the abandoned cars to a nearby parking lot. The Park Police Department is asking the owners of those cars to wait until roadcrews have treated and cleared the Parkway before coming to retrieve their vehicles.


Government employees: I kept hearing WTOP asking this morning why the federal goverment closed early and released all of the employees at once. When I left work, the official word was that OPM was releasing everyone up to two hours earlier than their normal departure. So someone who normally gets off at 4:30 was free to leave at 2:30, someone who works until 6:00 could leave at 4:00. That is a staggered release and definitely not a government closing with everyone leaving at once. Yes, our facility closed at 5:00, but that only means that employees who would normally stay past 7:00pm (very few people) left more than 2 hours early. I don't know how the other companies handled the storm, but don't blame the federal government for the gridlock last night.

John Townsend: Good point. Thanks for sharing your insights/


Where did everyone go?: I have never seen so many abandonded cars on the road. Where did all of these people go? How did they make it home? I assume they just ran out of gas. Couldn't a few of them have worked together and push their car a little off the road to clear the lanes for others stuck behind them?

John Townsend: The Park Police is currently towing the abandoned cars to a nearby parking lot. The Park Police Department is asking the owners of those cars to wait until road crews have treated and cleared the Parkway before coming to retrieve their vehicles.

Last night's ordeal called for "random acts of kindness." We have reports of Good Samaritans who helped others last evening. They are our heroes.. As to empty gas tanks, AAA always recommends keeping your gas tank filled at least halfway during the winter months, and especially when there is a snowstorm or icestorm in the forecast.

Most injuries and deaths associated with winter storms happen to people involved in traffic accidents and from hypothermia (prolonged exposure to extremely cold conditions). That's why you should think twice before abandoning your car.


Alexandria, Va.: Two things come to mind today. 1) Living close to work, where biking, walking, bus and/or Metrorail are viable options to driving, is priceless. Even if its not snowing, the shorter commute can be enjoyed as a daily benefit.

2) This storm was well-forecasted and hit exactly as expected. Those who failed to leave work for home early enough, for whatever reason, suffered the consequences.

John Townsend: Though it was forecast, the timing couldn't have been worse.

Knowing how to drive safely on slick and snow-covered roads makes all the difference in the world, especially when the snow starts to fall right at rush hour.

Conditions like the ones we encountered last night were nightmarish to say the least. This was compounded by the fac tthat Greater Washington D.C. Urban Area, which includes the suburbs and exurbs in Virginia and Maryland, is tied with first place with Chicago for the dubious distinction of having the worst amount of traffic congestion in the entire nation.


Abandoned cars?: I don't get the abandoned car thing either but my question is...what did the people do after they just left their car? Assuming Metro isn't close by (i.e. Beltway or I-66) did you just walk somewhere or hitch a ride. Really I want to know what you did.

John Townsend: Reportedly, there were at least 100 cars abandoned on the George Washington Parkway alone. Drivers were stuck in gridlock on the parkway for 11 to 14 hours, WTOP is reporting.

According to the Associated Press, "Snow, thunder and lightning pounded the Mid-Atlantic Wednesday night, making many roads impassable, with cars stuck on the smallest of hills."

Many people simply ran out of gas.

Here's a tip. During winter months, make sure you keep a full tank of gas in your car in case you need to leave your home. During or after severe weather conditions, gas stations may not be open.


Fairfax, Va.: Is there a fine for abandoning your car?

John Townsend: Hate to be technical, but Virginia law (46.2-1200.1.) outlines the fines for abandoning motor vehicles, which is prohibited in Virginia. Here is the law, read it and weep.

"No person shall cause any motor vehicle to become an abandoned motor vehicle as defined in 46.2-1200. In any prosecution for a violation of this section, proof that the defendant was, at the time that the vehicle was found abandoned, the owner of the vehicle shall constitute in evidence a rebuttable presumption that the owner was the person who committed the violation. Such presumption, however, shall not arise if the owner of the vehicle provided notice to the Department, as provided in 46.2-604, that he had sold or otherwise transferred the ownership of the vehicle.

A summons for a violation of this section shall be executed by mailing a copy of the summons by first-class mail to the address of the owner of the vehicle as shown on the records of the Department of Motor Vehicles. If the person fails to appear on the date of return set out in the summons, a new summons shall be issued and delivered to the sheriff of the county, city, or town for service on the accused personally. If the person so served then fails to appear on the date of return set out in the summons, proceedings for contempt shall be instituted.

Any person convicted of a violation of this section shall be subject to a civil penalty of no more than $500. If any person fails to pay any such penalty, his privilege to drive a motor vehicle on the highways of the Commonwealth shall be suspended as provided in 46.2-395.

All penalties collected under this section shall be paid into the state treasury to be credited to the Literary Fund as provided in 46.2-114."

I think given the magnitude of the storm and the gravity of the situations, those tickets might be thrown out.


Abandoned cars...: Hi John, thanks for taking my question. Out of curiousity, what happens to the abandoned cars on the road? Do they get towed or move to another location so that the roads will be cleared?

John Townsend: The U.S. Park Police is currently towning the abandoned cars on the George Washington Parkway. According to news reports, "The cars that were abandoned are being towed to the two overlooks along the northbound parkway. If the U.S. Park Service runs out of room there cars will be towed to the parking lot on Theodore Roosevelt Island."


Reston, Va.: Why can't the federal government admit they made a mistake? They should have sent workers home at noon. Their were no surprises, every weather person predicted the snow would come fast and be debilitating. Because they waited so long, everyone left at the same time causing hundreds of people to get stuck on the roads for hours (in my case 6).

John Townsend: OPM Director John Berry is only human. Though human, he is profusely apologizing for the inconveniences caused by the decision. This morning Berry told the Washington Post,

"As late as 4 p.m. I was worried with nothing happening if the exact opposite was going to occur, i,e,, a laughingstock story of over reaction."

"This is never easy," Berry said, "but I'd say we called it about right, in that most employees should have been underway around 2 to 3 p.m., far in advance of the mess and home safe while still light out."


Traffic: I'm glad some people have the luxury of living close to work and public transportation, and a lot of people got home quickly and safely last night, but DO NOT blame commuters for not leaving work early or not doing enough to avoid this. As if we're asking for it.

John Townsend: Amen. Amen. Amen. You are preaching to the choir. Your point is valid.


Falls Church, Va.: I live in Poplar Street, Falls Church, and work downtown D.C. (federal employee). What is the best to get to work? I usually take Metro.

John Townsend: I would follow my routine. Metro is reporting that the
Metrorail service opened at its usual time and Metrobuses are running on snow emergency routes.

Metrobuses will resume routes on neighborhood streets "as possible as those roads are plowed and conditions improve to the point that it is safe to travel."

Before heading out check with Metro at http://www.wmata.com/index.cfm.

I wish you traveling mercy.


The Day After: I don't remember ever driving and seeing that many abandonded cars and trucks along the side of the road. Why was this storm so different from others? I am so glad that I took the option of leaving work two hours early. It was only rain when I left, but by the time I made it home, it had changed to sleet and then snow. If I had waited for the snow to arrive at work, I would have been trapped with everyone else. If anything, I think this storm proves that this area needs more alternate routes. We have a few major roads and none of the side streets have outlets providing an alternate if one road is blocked.

John Townsend:
The truth is we experienced unusual weather conditions. Weather forecasters tell us, "The conditions needed to produce thundersnow are unsurprisingly similar to those of a regular thunderstorm."

According to National Geographic News, "Thundersnow-when thunder and lighting occur during a snowstorm-most often appears in late winter or early spring, experts say."

"That's because the ingredients for thundersnow-a mass of cold air on top of warm, plus moist air closer to the ground-often come together during that time."


Baltimore, Md.: Thank the lord I didn't have to go in yesterday, but I can totally understand people abandoning their cars in certain circumstances. For example, the Jones Falls Expressway here in Baltimore was closed by the authorities in the early evening. The people who were on it were literally stuck, so what option did they have, really, if they wanted to try and get home?

John Townsend: Last year's back-to-back snowstorms were dubbed "Snowmageddon," pr "Snowpocalypse" and "Snowzilla" even. But this was the closest we have come to the real thing in a snowstorm. This was tantamount to "Armageddon," often defined as the "final battle between the forces of good and evil, prophesied to occur at the end of the world." With all the abandoned cars, it was as if someone had dropped a "neutron bomb" on our roads, which minimizes damage to vehicles, buildings and equipment, but maximizes damage to people. The emotional toll of being stuck in interminable gridlock, caused people to abandon their vehicles.


Washington, D.C.: I don't think that just telling people to "live where they work" is a good response to the problems we experienced last night. What about couples who work in different areas and those of us who bought a home close to our jobs and then lost our jobs with the new job located miles away (my situation)? I'd lose thousands and thousands of dollars by selling now. So, "live where you work" is not a sufficient answer to the commuting problems we have in this area.

John Townsend: You are on point. Studies have found, "After housing, transportation-related expenditures are the second largest for the average American household, exceeding food, education, recreation, and healthcare"(U.S. Department of Labor).

According to the local Council of Governments "The trend of employees who are living farther away from their jobs is worsening, creating longer commutes. Population and job growth bring the side effect of growing congestion. With this come fundamental challenges to our quality of life, related to the time it takes to get to and from work."


Washington, D.C.: I noticed a lot of comments in the various articles trying to blame politicians for last night's mess (most commenters who were doing this were taking swipes at Vince Gray more than anyone else).

Here are a few tips for these commenters. 1) When you put down salt, and it rains as hard and fast as it did last night before the snow, the salt washes away--honestly, that rain looked like one of our summer thunderstorms. 2) You can't exactly deploy plows in the middle of rush hour. 3) Blaming Gray alone makes no sense, as he has no jurisdiction over Maryland or Virginia, where some of the worst gridlock presented itself.

John Townsend: Snowstorms can be the graveyards of politicians, especially mayors who are unfairly blamed. In Chicago, Jane Byrne hammered the city's poor snow removal effort to beat sitting Mayor Michael Bilandic.

Remember John V. Lindsay and now Michael Bloomberg of New York City.

Critics of snow removal in DC hurled snowballs at Marion Berry and Adrian Fenty.

They have all suffered from the "Blame the Mayor" syndrome that crops up after storms such as this.

The old saying is true, "Politicians and Snow Don't Mix Well." It's unfair. But a political reality, even for junkies of politics.


Reston, Va.: We aren't blaming you because you couldn't leave work early. We are blaming you because you don't know how to drive in these conditions. See that hill? Punch IT! Don't try to crawl up the hill all slow like.

People fail to understand that incelment weather is just as dangerous, if not more-so than any other type of disaster. If we could predict a blackout along the eastern coast 4 days in advance - would you still stay at work? If we could predict a civil uprising a week in advance, would you make it a point to attend that meeting? Heck no, you'd up and leave and go take care of you and yours. Snow affects infrastructre - every aspect of it. Roads, power, supply chains, the list goes on and on. Please, start taking inclement weather seriously and do your part to prepare yourself people.

John Townsend: Thanks for sharing. You have sized it up correctly.


Bethesda, Md.: Last night, an elderly woman got out of her car on Massachusetts Ave in Bethesda, in slow but heavy traffic, and asked me for help because her car was stuck. I tried to dig her out, then push her car forward, both to no avail; her car and tires simply were not equipped for the snow.

I told her to get back into her car (because running around in traffic is unsafe), and called the nonemergency police number and asked them for help. I also suggested that she call a tow-truck. Because the second lane was full of plowed snow, there was almost no getting around her, and the backup she caused cost others hours. Is there anything else that I should have done in that situation?

John Townsend: My hat is off to you for being a Good Samaritan, they are a rare breed these days. You are a hero to the elderly lady and to AAA,

For other Good Samaritans out there, here's how to do it.

To rock a vehicle, start slowly in low gear (use second gear for manual transmission vehicle). When the vehicle will go no farther forward, release the
accelerator to permit the car to roll back.

When the vehicle stops its backward motion, apply minimum pressure on the accelerator again.

Repeat these actions in rapid succession.

Each rock should move the vehicle a little farther forward or back of the hole you are in. When you rock, you must use minimum power to help prevent the wheels from spinning and digging in deeper. Check the owner's manual for the recommended procedure.

By the way, when more traction is needed, use traction mats or spread some sand, salt or any handy abrasive material in front of and in back of the drive wheels. When using devices under the wheels for additional traction, or when wheels are digging into dirt or gravel and you are receiving pushing assistance, do not let anyone stand directly ahead or behind the drive wheels as they may be injured by objects thrown by the spinning tires. Stop if the wheels continue to spin and create a deeper rut, and consider attempting to rock the vehicle out of the rut.

You can download AAA's excellent brochure titled "How To Go On Snow And Ice" here:



Arlington, Va.: I saw several cars spinning out on flat pavement and buses stuck not only in the middle of hills but also on flat pavement, more than would be explained by some bad tires. Although it just looked slushy, this snow seemed worse than ice in some ways. Any ideas why?

John Townsend:

It was the admixture of the snow, sleet and ice, plus the sheer volume and velocity of the snowfall. We were overwhelmed and unprepared for the thundersnow that left us thunderstruck.


Reston, Va.: Events like this always make me feel better about myself because I get to see that there are a ton of idiots out there. This event goes to show you just how un-prepared people are for anything out of the norm. We all pay our taxes, blah blah blah, but we have to have self-accountability during times like this. At the rate at which this storm was forcast to dump snow, people should have made every effort to get out of dodge (aka work or whatever) and get to your final destination well in advance.

People complaining about the plows, the services, the infrastructure...of course those services have accountability as well but let's get real. We knew this was coming and we cannot just blindly follow our governments and think that everything is going to be hunky dory. Just use some common sense. Fill up your tank, put some blankets in your car, snow pants, boots, YakTracks, Shovel, etc. As far as a fine for abandoning your car - it should be doubled during a snow emergency. People still have emergencies when it snows, fire and police need to get through. Next time think before you hop into your Miata to go "check out the roads" and compund the problems. At the end of the day do what you can do to prepare for your own well-being. Don't depend 100 percent on the infrastructure services.

John Townsend: Point made and understood. Thanks for sharing.


Fed government: Wait a minute, I do blame the federal gov't, almost entirely, for yesterday's debacle. They hate closing/canceling based on forecasts -- they want to see snow on the ground -- so they took what is, in retrospect, an obviously too-casual approach to what everyone agrees was a well-forecast storm, that was unquestionably going to hit during the afternoon rush. They also ignored the fact that the roads couldn't be treated because of the overnight rain/snow. The officials in charge do not think about the realities on the ground, but rather worry about being embarrassed by overreacting. Many employers in town follow the lead of the gov't and this led to a lot of people leaving at 3, 4, 5 (which is 2 hours early for many of us), who should have left a lot earlier. Luckily there so far do not seem to be any tragedies as a result of this error in judgment, only massive inconvenience.

-By the way, I have no stake in the game. I would have worked the same hours either way and take Metro...Just voicing an opinion]

John Townsend: I understand. Thanks for clarifying and underscoring.


Washington, D.C.: The horror stories about yesterday's commute made me thankful that 1) I don't drive, 2) I live 30 minutes from work via Metro, and 3) My employer let me leave as early as 2 to get home ahead of the storm. I feel bad for the people who got stuck in a 13-hour commute, but why did they wait so long to leave? If managers think keeping people at work until 6 when a blizzard is coming is the best way to ensure productivity I think they are quite foolish.

John Townsend: The fallout will reverberate for months. The blame game will continue undiminished. This is only the first volley. Heads might roll and reputations will be diminished. The storm proved the frailty of human life and how little road crews and governments can do in extreme conditions. But I hope that at the end of the day we realize that this was an act of God.


John Townsend:

I am so sorry, but we are out of time. Thank you for voicing your concerns, but posing your questions, and for participating, and in many instances, sharing your nightmarish experience. I hope the day goes better for you. Now we can get the T-shirt, "I Survive The Thunder-Snow Storm of 2011." It is something we can tell our grandchildren about, if they believe it.



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