The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Calls grow for examinations of Virginia’s response to hours-long I-95 backup

VDOT is asking motorists to stay off roads as questions mount about the state’s handling of a snowstorm meltdown

Hundreds of cars and trucks were stranded on Interstate 95 amid ice and snow Tuesday in Northern Virginia. (Steve Helber/AP)

Calls mounted Wednesday for an investigation into Virginia’s handling of a snowfall that paralyzed the East Coast’s busiest highway, a meltdown that left some motorists stranded for more than 24 hours in one of the Washington region’s worst traffic disasters in a decade.

As state highway officials continued to dig out from 12 inches of snow, a member of Congress and a major transportation advocacy group were among those who said the state needed to examine how Monday’s snowstorm left motorists on Interstate 95 stuck in freezing vehicles overnight. Many lacked food or water, and some ran out of gas. One expert questioned the homeland security risks of I-95, a major thoroughfare leading to the Pentagon and nation’s capital, being crippled for hours.

State and federal officials and political leaders began to take stock Wednesday of a debacle that turned an often-gridlocked segment of highway to a standstill long before a 12-hour shutdown. Virginia Department of Transportation officials said the agency had started its own examination as travelers and driver advocates questioned how a major artery near Washington became a snow-covered parking lot, forcing motorists to rely upon themselves and each other to make it through the night.

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

“It’s critical for VDOT to conduct a thorough investigation into the matter to determine what occurred so history doesn’t repeat itself,” said Ragina Ali, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “From what we can gather, it was a situation where everything that could go wrong did.”

The Federal Highway Administration will participate in VDOT’s review, the agency said in a statement Wednesday.

Calling the overnight closure of the highway a “catastrophe,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) asked Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) to conduct a “full-scale, multiagency After Action Report.” She said the state needed to know “what events and decisions led to or created the circumstances whereby a major transportation artery along the East Coast of the United States was at a standstill for more than 24 hours.”

In a letter to both administrations, Spanberger said she had heard from constituents who were trapped with infants, trying to reach a parent’s funeral or in the middle of what was supposed to be a typical commute home.

“They reported receiving no guidance, information, or support for hours as they attempted to ration gas, stay warm, and calm their scared children,” she wrote.

Many questioned whether VDOT had an emergency plan for such an event and why the agency didn’t provide more information, both to prevent motorists from entering the clogged highway or provide guidance once they were stuck.

David Snyder, a longtime Falls Church City Council member who serves on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ transportation and emergency preparedness committees, said he has asked COG to examine what went wrong.

“Clearly, this situation needs to be carefully reviewed from every standpoint,” Snyder said. “The focus needs to be on how you prevent the chain of events that occurred so people aren’t in this situation, and then once they’re in it, what kind of communication helps people get through it.”

While Northam placed some of the blame Tuesday on motorists who didn’t heed warnings to stay off the highways, Snyder said the state needs to understand why the message didn’t get through.

“That public communication element is very, very important,” he said. “Whatever was done in this case, clearly it wasn’t enough to help prevent people from getting into this situation.”

VDOT officials in the Fredericksburg District, who were involved with key decisions about storm preparations and response, said Wednesday they were too busy managing road closures and ongoing recovery efforts to answer questions about the agency’s actions related to the I-95 crisis.

Shannon Nicole Marshall, VDOT’s director of communications, did not respond to questions about the agency’s performance, saying only that the review process “is currently underway, and we will be providing additional details.”

In a memo last year, VDOT said reviews should be conducted when an interstate is closed for more than five hours and completed within 15 business days. Such a review should identify “root causes” and develop a plan for corrective measures, if needed, the memo said.

The inquiry is “not intended as a forum for personal, and agency criticism,” the memo said. “It is an opportunity for critical thinking and problem solving.”

On Tuesday, VDOT district engineer Marcie Parker said that crews became overwhelmed by fast-falling snow and that the highway hadn’t been pretreated because the forecast called for rain, which would have washed away any salt mixture. She said the agency’s inquiry would include the timing of when the state shut down the highway.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Wednesday that initial reports indicate that tractor-trailers jackknifed in “quickly escalating weather conditions,” making it “incredibly difficult” for emergency vehicles to get through.

“The Virginia emergency response team does exhaustive after-action reviews of these types of incidents to determine what went well and what could have been done differently — the governor has made it clear he expects that will happen in this case,” Yarmosky wrote in a text message.

A spokesman for Youngkin did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the highway meltdown. Youngkin, who will take office Jan. 15, also has not weighed in on social media.

Garren Shipley, spokesman for House Speaker-designee Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said there is no plan to seek an investigation of the handling of the I-95 situation. However, Gilbert said he wants to evaluate it to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Crews reopened I-95 on Tuesday evening. Many travelers reported feeling abandoned, often with no sight of a snowplow, police cruiser or other government help. Many shared stories of fighting to stay awake while worrying about running out of gas and of some motorists sharing food and water, and checking on one another.

In a region notorious for traffic congestion, the duration of the backups and the number of people affected made it one of the worst snarls since a 2011 snowstorm during an evening rush hour left motorists stranded on Washington-area roads overnight.

I-95 bogged down again Wednesday morning when a disabled tractor-trailer blocked a lane in Stafford County. VDOT asked motorists in a tweet to stay off local roads, saying more than 100 remained closed in the Fredericksburg area because of snow and ice, downed trees or fallen utility lines.

Virginia State Police will conduct an internal review, as the agency does for any significant response operation, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Wednesday. She said police also will take part in an after-action review through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

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)

State police said they received the first report of a jackknifed tractor-trailer at 8:20 a.m. Monday, about 24 hours before the state closed the highway. That incident was “kind of the impetus, the beginning” of the major problems, State Police Superintendent Gary T. Settle said at a news conference Tuesday.

A trooper made it to the scene by 8:40 a.m. But even as authorities tried to remove the vehicle from the road, a chain reaction already had begun, with vehicles braking to avoid crashing.

Here's what made Monday's snowstorm so severe

“This was a process that repeated itself continuously through the day, night and next day on Interstate 95 with multiple wreckers and troopers,” Geller said.

Javed Ali, a former senior federal intelligence and counterterrorism official who now teaches at the University of Michigan, said the prolonged shutdown so close to the nation’s capital raised national security implications.

“That stretch of Virginia is so brittle that all it takes is a couple semis to jackknife and you shut down the main north-south artery along the Eastern Seaboard,” Ali said. “What if there was some kind of emergency and you needed to flow resources in one direction or the other? How would that have happened with the gridlock that existed?”

D.C. region continues to recover from Monday's major snowstorm

Ali said federal homeland security officials might need to do more to assist state and local officials to make sure key infrastructure doesn’t fail again.

“There wasn’t the right sense of urgency, or it wasn’t tackled with the level of vigor it should have been, considering how terrible the situation was on the ground,” Ali said.

He said the Virginia National Guard should have been deployed, although state emergency management officials said the Guard is not typically called on in such situations.

“They have to have specific mission assignments based on needs,” Lauren Opett, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said in a statement. “State agencies and localities have significant resources and contracts in place. There was no request for Guard resources from state agencies or local jurisdictions.”

Experts in snow-clearing said VDOT faced a tough weather challenge. Because pretreating roads doesn’t work when rain precedes snowfall, highway crews are left scrambling to keep up when rain turns to snow. It doesn’t take much time between plowings for wet snow to freeze, they say.

“It creates a really tough situation to deal with,” said Wilfrid Nixon, a former University of Iowa engineering professor who focused on winter highway maintenance.

The solution, Nixon said, is to have enough plows in position to move in quickly and clear areas often and continuously — a potentially expensive proposition. Problems cascade quickly, he said, when the first fender-bender or disabled vehicle clogs traffic, leaving plows stuck in the same congestion “absolutely useless.”

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

It’s also understandable, he said, that VDOT would struggle to keep up with an unusually fast snowfall. Local officials reported bands of snow that fell up to two inches per hour.

“Two inches per hour is going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Nixon, president of the Professional Snowfighters Association, which represents some transportation agencies and industry vendors. “That’s an extraordinarily high rate of snowfall. … The rate of snowfall made it a bad situation. Starting with rain and then going to snow made it even worse.”

A few inches of snow possible Thursday night, with slick roads Friday morning

With little information and no sign of help, motorists muddled through the night alone or relied on one another.

Truck driver Larry Mason had all the supplies he needed to survive hours of gridlock while traveling southbound on I-95, but he said he noticed others were struggling. No police officers, firetrucks or other government help arrived. He said he waved to see if people inside nearby vehicles were awake and needed help.

“Everyone was actually very friendly even though everyone was pretty frustrated,” Mason said. "… There was no kind of messages sent. We couldn’t really get any information online about when we would start to go again.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) became the most high-profile motorist trapped overnight as he headed to Washington from Richmond for a voting rights meeting. His two-hour commute turned into nearly 27 hours.

Kaine said Wednesday that Virginia possibly could use federal dollars from the recently approved federal infrastructure act to improve the chances of preventing another catastrophe in the I-95 corridor.

“What they’ll have to do is strategize, ‘Okay, what happened on the maintenance side?’” Kaine said of transportation officials and the incoming Youngkin administration. “Because a lot of the [highway] dollars go into rehab, repairs and new construction. This is more of a maintenance issue.”

Laura Vozzella, Gregory S. Schneider, Ellie Silverman and Meagan Flynn contributed to this report.

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