Virginia agencies say they are preparing for the winter season armed with lessons learned from a January snowstorm that wreaked havoc across the state and paralyzed 48 miles of Interstate 95 south of the nation’s capital.
The debacle along the East Coast’s busiest highway raised questions about the state’s preparedness for disasters while prompting two investigations and calls for changes to emergency protocols. It was one of the region’s worst travel meltdowns since a 2011 snowstorm created extended gridlock around Washington during the evening rush.
The three primary agencies that respond to weather-related emergencies on state roadways — the Virginia Department of Transportation, Virginia State Police, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management — said they ramped up training and revised policies while also working on corrective actions issued by the Virginia inspector general in the aftermath.
“VDOT is committed to continually improving our practices to reach our mission during snowstorms — keeping travelers and workers safe,” VDOT spokeswoman Marshall Herman said.
As heavy precipitation fell in the early hours of Jan. 3, tractor-trailers jackknifed on hilly stretches, snow-removal crews became overwhelmed and motorists were left trapped without assistance. Highway traffic cameras went dark and overhead signs didn’t clearly communicate to drivers to avoid the highway ahead, even as it became impassable. It wasn’t until early the next morning that Virginia leaders officially shut down the road.
State officials blamed the incident on challenging conditions from a storm that hit much of the state with more snow than expected. Traffic camera outages and spotty cellphone service left responders unable to assess road conditions that rapidly turned hazardous amid heavy commercial traffic and travelers moving through the corridor after the New Year’s weekend.
“Sometimes you can have all the plans in the world, but Mother Nature will throw you a curveball. And in this case, it was just the worst possible situation,” said state Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee. “This was a lesson to be learned.”
After that icy 36 hours in January, Virginia has been more quick to declare states of emergency ahead of storms, prompting a faster response to deploying resources. State transportation officials said that approach also helps to streamline communications between the transportation, police and emergency management agencies that are responsible for storm responses.
Plans this winter call for more “clear and actionable” messages to the public, and when warranted, said Herman, “more aggressive messaging encouraging motorists to avoid travel.”
An August report by the state inspector general’s office criticized VDOT’s communications with the public as ineffective, noting that messages did not clearly state the need to avoid travel on I-95 or, in some cases, provided inaccurate information.
The IG report issued 18 corrective actions to the state agencies, intended to improve response protocols that could ease problems during future storms. Officials at VDOT, VDEM and the State Police said they are working to finalize the recommendations, some of which have an end-of-the-year deadline.
“We always have and will continue to promote emergency preparedness messages for all hazards, to include snow events,” said Lauren Opett, a spokeswoman a VDEM, which is responsible for providing resources to localities and state agencies during and after an emergency.
Opett said the agency is working to complete “a full assessment of our plans, policies, and procedures.” She declined to provide more details, citing ongoing work to implement the inspector general’s corrective actions.
Driver advocates say it is also important for residents to be prepared for such scenarios in wintry weather. On road trips, experts recommend drivers stay aware of weather along the entire route and be flexible to detour or wait out storms.
Experts also recommend that drivers keep an emergency kit available during all seasons, which can be handy if traffic becomes stalled after a serious collision. According to AAA, 40 percent of American drivers don’t carry an emergency kit in their vehicles.
During winter, an emergency kit should include first-aid supplies, drinking water, snacks, a flashlight with extra batteries, jumper cables, warm gloves, clothes, hats and blankets. Gas tanks shouldn’t fall below a quarter full and a mobile phone and charger should be accessible.
“It’s important to be prepared,” said Ragina Ali, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “I’m hoping that incidents like this have caused people to carry an emergency kit in their vehicle. Unfortunately, they’re painful reminders of how important it is to actually have one with you.”
Ali said travelers should follow social media accounts or websites of state departments of transportation where they are traveling. In turn, she said agencies should “do their best to advise motorists of what is expected as far as weather goes … and also advise motorists to stay off the roads,” when necessary.
VDOT said it is conducting a “multipronged review” of its state, district and local messaging systems, while employees have received preparedness training that emphasizes improved messaging. The state’s 511 system, a key source of traffic information that remained relatively quiet during January’s storm, is receiving an upgrade expected to be finished next year, Herman said.
The state has also purchased a new system to enable two-way communication between drivers and VDOT crews during emergencies. A new service to launch in December will allow in-cab safety alerts to commercial vehicles during weather events. The state has also partnered with Waze to provide emergency updates, officials said.
VDOT’s nine districts have also identified additional locations to stage wreckers and snowplows, especially where work zones effect movement in the area.
VDOT also plans to have more staff available to drive routes and report on conditions, prioritizing areas where traffic cameras become unavailable. At the recommendation of the inspector general, VDOT also is exploring the use of backup power for highway cameras, although those plans are in early phases.
Virginia State Police said it has acquired several drones equipped with cameras that can be used to assess traffic incidents and identify traffic chokepoints and detour routes, particularly in places where VDOT cameras are not available.
VDOT said each of its districts will set up its own “district command” during major weather events, placing local leadership in a position to better report to the agency’s central office in Richmond.
State police are reviewing emergency response policies and procedures to ensure they align with the recommendations of two investigations into the storm. Spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the agency also has changed its communications policy so its superintendent’s office is kept informed of critical incidents and “significant unusual occurrences.”
The three agencies are continuing to work on a plan for handling long-term closures and assisting stranded motorists, officials said, with directives to coordinate wellness checks, and if necessary, message motorists through texting software already used in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. More immediately, police have started to tag agencies in neighboring states when posting about conditions on social media.
Marsden said he is confident state agencies and Virginia leadership will be prepared to confront severe storms and have learned from the problems that surfaced in January along I-95.
“What you’re probably going to see on the administration’s part this winter is hyper-vigilance,” he said. “We learned from it. I think we’ll do better.”