Virginia agencies didn’t apply lessons from a chaotic snowstorm that paralyzed a Southwest Virginia highway in 2018, then repeated similar missteps in response to a January storm that stranded hundreds of people overnight on Interstate 95, according to a new audit.
“We’re hoping for improvements, so next time something like this comes about, it won’t result in a shutdown of [Interstate] 95,” said Benjamin Sutphin, who led the audit at the state inspector general’s office.
As heavy precipitation fell in the early hours of Jan. 3, snow-removal crews quickly were overwhelmed, tractor-trailers jackknifed on hilly stretches and motorists were left trapped without supplies of food, water or gas. The corridor became impassable, but it wasn’t until the next morning that Virginia leaders officially shut it down. The incident raised questions about the state’s preparedness for disasters and prompted calls for changes to emergency protocols.
The inspector general report echoes findings unveiled in April by Arlington-based consulting firm CNA in a state-commissioned review of how the Virginia Department of Transportation, state police and the Department of Emergency Management responded to the storm that paralyzed traffic for 48 miles. That review cited a list of factors that contributed to the breakdown, including power outages knocking out traffic cameras, road conditions that hindered monitoring and reporting, and a “geographic unalignment” in central Virginia in which bureaucratic boundaries drawn by agencies hindered in-person coordination.
The report published Friday, however, is more critical, saying the state didn’t effectively communicate internally or with the public amid rapidly deteriorating conditions as the storm dropped more than 12 inches of snow. Snowplows couldn’t keep pace while the state had no coordinated plan of action, the report found.
“The state was prepared for what was forecasted that day. They weren’t prepared for what actually came,” Sutphin said. “And because they didn’t learn some of the lessons from 2018, they were less prepared than they could have been.”
Officials with the three state agencies said Monday that they are reviewing the findings in the report and working to make changes in response. The agencies agreed to update some policies in the coming months.
The I-95 meltdown could have been minimized, if not prevented, had the state followed recommendations issued after a December 2018 storm that brought Interstate 81 to a standstill for nearly 24 hours, according to audit officials. An after-action report of that incident in the Bristol area urged changes that ranged from establishing a central coordinated command center to strengthening interagency communications and developing a backup plan when traffic cameras aren’t working, as well as conducting wellness checks on motorists. A VDOT memo after that incident highlighted the need for clearer messages to drivers.
“They came up with a lot of ideas that, if they’d carried them forward — for example, the incident command center — they would have worked together rather than working blindly, with not one room with every party in it to help make decisions,” Sutphin said.
The state didn’t implement the recommendations from that 2018 storm, the IG report concluded. Its first two corrective actions call on VDOT, VDEM and the state police to apply lessons learned during earlier events — including the I-81 and I-95 incidents — and incorporate them into policies and procedures. The agencies agreed to review and update policies by the end of the year.
In snow events, VDOT is responsible for clearing roads to keep traffic flowing while state police respond to traffic crashes, direct traffic and escort emergency services. VDEM helps to coordinate resources to aid agencies and jurisdictions. The agency has emergency plans for natural disasters, the audit found, but has no plans specifically for hazardous snow events.
The IG recommended VDEM establish criteria for a disaster-level snowfall, develop best practices for snow removal and assist stranded motorists during crippling snowfalls. Lauren Opett, a spokeswoman for the agency, said VDEM is working with staff members to review the findings and corrective actions.
“Our agency remains committed to serving the commonwealth across all mission areas of emergency management and will work to implement any changes needed to current polices and/or procedures,” she said in a statement.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the department is reviewing the report and “working collaboratively with VDOT and VDEM to improve our abilities to respond to severe winter weather events.”
VDOT spokeswoman Marshall Herman said in a statement the agency is working to implement the IG’s recommendations and is “committed to making improvements with our practices in order to reach our mission during snowstorms — keeping travelers and workers safe.”
Herman said VDOT already has carried out several changes, including boosting training for communications staff members and drafting a plan for how to address long-term road closures. The state is in the process of contracting for a service to send text messages to drivers during emergencies, she said. When the agency began planning for winter earlier this summer, Herman said, state officials included a preparedness training that emphasized improved messaging.
The IG found that public messaging during the storm was not effective, noting that communications did not clearly state the need to avoid travel on I-95 or, in some cases, provided inaccurate information. Another recommendation was for agencies to define who is in charge of messaging during an event such as the January storm, which covered multiple jurisdictions and agencies.
“In crisis communications, the message to the public needs to be clear and authoritative about what actions to take,” the report said. “Some motorists received messages to avoid the area and ignored them, while others may not have been aware of the messages at all.”
The inspector general urged VDOT to come up with a contingency plan for when power outages limit the availability of traffic cameras. Power outages shut down cameras in the Fredericksburg area, creating challenges and frustrations among officials who couldn’t see road conditions.
The report ordered VDOT to study the feasibility of acquiring traffic cameras equipped to run on other power sources.
“The fact that they didn’t have backup on those cameras was just surprising to us because they’re such an integral part of traffic management,” Sutphin said. “The fact that they didn’t have backup power on something that important, and then they didn’t have the ability to communicate by other means effectively, that really affected the situational awareness.”
The inspector general’s office said it will keep track of the state agencies’ progress as they put in place the recommendations, some of which have December deadlines.