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I-95 reopens in Virginia after winter storm forced closure that stranded motorists

Highway crews had spent much of the day towing dozens of vehicles that had been abandoned or run out of gas

A family bound for a beach vacation and a trucker headed to Georgia were among hundreds of drivers stranded for hours on Interstate 95 in Virginia. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Interstate 95 in Virginia reopened Tuesday evening after a winter storm paralyzed vehicles for 48 miles south of Washington, leaving hundreds of motorists stranded — many for more than 24 hours without food or water — as temperatures fell into the teens.

The latest: Virginia clears icy roads amid questions about hours-long backup on I-95

The storm, which dropped about 12 inches of snow in the area beginning Monday morning, quickly overwhelmed snow-removal crews on a hilly stretch of interstate, slowing traffic before crippling a section of the East Coast’s busiest highway already known for gridlock. Transportation officials cited multiple crashes in the Fredericksburg area, some involving jackknifed tractor-trailers, and closed the highway Tuesday morning.

Southbound lanes reopened after 7 p.m., followed soon after by the northbound lanes, Virginia Department of Transportation officials said. Highway crews spent much of the day clearing interstate off-ramps and towing dozens of vehicles that were abandoned or ran out of gas. Officials warned that travel remained hazardous on parts of I-95 and should be avoided, if possible.

Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow talks about what caused Monday’s disruptive snowstorm across the D.C. region and provides a forecast for Thursday. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Sophia Colson, 34, of Farmville, Va., who spent 19 hours stuck in her vehicle, said she heard motorists scream in the dark in frustration Monday night. Some abandoned their vehicles and tried to walk along the highway, including people she saw fall in the snow and ice.

“We’re trying to stay positive,” Colson said Tuesday after being stuck with her 63-year-old aunt, who has one lung and needs supplemental oxygen, a diabetic brother and her 13-year-old son. “But it feels like we’ve been abandoned. VDOT just left us stranded last night and didn’t try to do anything to get us out of this situation. They didn’t put in the effort.”

Timeline: How a winter storm brought I-95 to a standstill

They missed a family funeral in New York and subsisted on Diet Dr Pepper, cheese crackers and gingersnap cookies while their gas tank neared empty.

Colson was among the hundreds of motorists, including a U.S. senator and families with children and elderly relatives, who spent a freezing day and night stuck in their vehicles worried about running low on gas and medicine and wondering how the state hadn’t been better prepared.

Motorists were left to form their own support system, offering one another extra food and bottled water, and turning off their headlights to grant others privacy when relieving themselves along the road as the hours dragged on. Throughout the night, many travelers said, state officials offered no help.

VDOT officials said that, based on forecasts, they were prepared for the storm but that snow fell faster and for longer than crews could manage. Tractor-trailers began jackknifing about 8:30 a.m. Monday, state police said, causing motorists to lose control and other trucks to jackknife to avoid collisions. Disabled vehicles and tractor-trailers blocked exits, and VDOT officially closed the highway about 8 a.m. Tuesday to prevent motorists from trying to enter and to help others make their way off the highway.

Elizabeth Blasso was trapped overnight on I-95 Southbound in Virginia on Jan. 3 and documented her ordeal on social media. (Video: Elizabeth Blasso)

“I do believe that VDOT was prepared prior to this storm,” said VDOT district engineer Marcie Parker. “We got more snow than what was initially predicted, and the rate was falling harder. Could we have kept up with a snowfall rate of that amount? No.”

She said VDOT didn’t pretreat the portion of the highway because rain that preceded the snow would have washed it away. Even so, she said, VDOT will examine whether it should have closed the interstate sooner to prevent more traffic from entering an already dire situation.

“That is something that we will look at,” Parker said. “We have to weigh that with the fact that people want to get to where they want to get to, and we can’t necessarily predict the outcome of each storm.”

A state police spokeswoman said the agency had received no reports of deaths or injuries as a result of the massive backups.

D.C. region races to restore power, dig out icy roads a day after big snowstorm

The mess along I-95 resulted from a winter storm that walloped the Washington area and parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern U.S., triggering power outages and closing government agencies, schools and coronavirus testing centers. The Fredericksburg area received about 12 inches of snow.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Tuesday that emergency crews were using highway express lanes to reach stranded motorists and get them to warming shelters.

“It’s warming up a bit. The sun is out,” Northam said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I anticipate that we’ll get to these folks today and hopefully by tonight we’ll have Interstate 95 open again.”

He said he had the National Guard on standby but had not deployed it because the challenge was in reaching vehicles, not a lack of personnel or equipment.

State Police and transportation officials took to the air to monitor progress because highway traffic cameras went dark amid power outages, Northam said. While expressing sympathy for stranded motorists, Northam said more should have heeded warnings to stay off the roads.

“We gave warnings, and people need to pay attention to these warnings, and the less people that are on the highways when these storms hit, the better,” he said. “I feel for these people that are stranded but just want to let them know we’re doing everything we can to get to them in a very challenging situation.”

Analysis: Here's what made Monday's snowstorm so severe

But some motorists said they aren’t to blame for what they saw as government officials’ poor planning.

Ronni Schorr said Virginia officials were “not at all” prepared, and she didn’t see plows until Tuesday morning. She said her vehicle finally exited the highway after 14 hours, weaving around others stuck in the median, after a plow cleared an exit ramp on the other side of the highway. A tractor-trailer blocked the nearest exit ramp, she said.

“I’m not angry at the snow,” Schorr said. “I’m just upset at the way they handled it.”

Most frustrating, she said, was the lack of communication from state and local officials as she and her husband took turns catnapping overnight in their Mazda. Finally, on Tuesday morning, they received a push alert on their phones from Virginia.

“In a world today when everybody’s got their cellphones with them, there was no information, there was nothing,” Schorr said. “If they were able to send an alert out this morning, why couldn’t they do that yesterday?”

Virginia state Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), who chairs the state Senate’s Transportation Committee, said a “perfect storm” had handicapped a transportation department that he called “one of the best-run in the country.” The storm starting with rain made it impossible to pretreat roads before chillier temperatures turned droplets into sleet, then snow, Marsden said.

“It was a catastrophe for people,” he said. “Our road guys are first-rate, and I’ve never heard of anything quite like this occurring in Virginia.”

He said he and other legislators have begun to explore how to avoid similar problems, such as by limiting trucks to a single right lane during heavy snowfall. He said he also would explore how the National Guard could be called to help with weather-related emergencies.

Stafford County Board Chair Crystal Vanuch (R-Rock Hill) said VDOT and state officials made “mistake after mistake” and should have declared a state of emergency. The I-95 backup sent many motorists seeking out local roads that had become dangerous after icing over, leaving vehicles stranded and blocking emergency vehicles, she said.

“It seems like they weren’t taking it seriously,” she said. “It seems like they didn’t think it was the emergency that it was.”

By Tuesday morning, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was 21 hours into a normally two-hour drive from Richmond to the U.S. Capitol. He said he was inching toward the exit for the Stafford airport, sleep-deprived and subsisting on two cups of coffee and a Dr Pepper he had picked up at a gas station in Fredericksburg, where he had refueled before traffic again came to a standstill.

Kaine said he left Richmond about 1 p.m. Monday for a voting-rights meeting later that day. Traffic would stop for five or six hours, then move slowly for a time, and stop again.

Overnight, stranded in below-freezing temperatures, he said he would heat the car as much as he could, then turn the engine off for an hour to conserve fuel while he tried to sleep.

“I would nap for 15 or 20 minutes — usually I’d wake up because I got too cold,” he said.

Overnight, he said, a man traveling with his family from Florida back home to Connecticut walked car-to-car, delivering souvenir Florida oranges to hungry people who hadn’t eaten in hours.

“There was a lot of good neighborly spirit last night,” he said, later arriving at the Capitol following a 27-hour commute.

Photos of the snowstorm that blanketed the D.C. region

Michele Rusher, 50, and Emily Slaughter, 36, who are best friends and co-truck drivers, began offering help via Twitter when they saw reports of people stuck, after they got ensnared in the standstill around 1:30 a.m. The women were delivering 21,000 pounds of misshapen vegetables from New Jersey to Georgia for MisFits Market in their black truck with pink decals, a pink antenna and pink steering wheel.

“Two chicks, one truck,” Rusher said. “We’re hard to miss.”

They encouraged stranded motorists to approach other tractor-trailer drivers, who carry food and water for long hauls.

Gia Grimm said she stayed on the phone with her mother, Lynne, for more than four hours Monday as her mother headed north on I-95, terrified after encountering black ice and her GPS stopped working near Fredericksburg. Her mother told her she was inching along, with half a tank of gas and temperatures dropping.

She said she directed her mother to leave at Exit 140 and head to Stafford Hospital, where she eventually spent the night before taking a bus to an emergency shelter at Stafford High School.

“It was the most terrifying phone call of my life,” Grimm said. “You could hear the ice and the cars and the nervousness of her voice. She was seeing cars spin out in front of her, tractor-trailers flip over, blocking both lanes. It was just a horrible situation.”

D.C.-area forecast: Sunshine bursts back today before another chance of snow Thursday night

At about 8 a.m. Tuesday, Safwan Aziz and John Hildenbrand hit their breaking point. After sitting for 17 hours about a quarter-mile from an exit in Stafford en route from Upstate New York to a job in South Carolina, the welders found a way around fallen trees that blocked the highway shoulder.

After passing the night listening to the radio and chain-smoking, they had used the generator on their welding truck to boil three pots of coffee, offering some to their neighbors in nearby cars. They walked along the lines of stalled vehicles handing out water bottles and energy bars, party mix and pecan pistachio bread made by Aziz’s mother-in-law.

Then they decided they would push the trees out of the way.

“It was kind of like a survival mode,” Hildenbrand said. “We just felt: ’I need to get off this highway.’”

After much effort, the men said they managed to shove the trees far enough apart that their four-wheel-drive truck made it over at least a foot of snow and ice.

Ellie Silverman, Teo Armus, Laura Vozzella and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.