After massive I-95 backup, Virginia says it will be ready for next snowstorm

Virginia agencies detailed their plans Thursday to prepare for the impending snowstorm while offering assurances that they will review what went wrong during the last storm, which left some motorists freezing and stranded on I-95 for more than 24 hours.

Ahead of the storm that is expected to dump another 2 to 4 inches of snow across the region Thursday night into early Friday morning, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has already declared a state of emergency.

“The need for a declaration is due to back-to-back events, stretching resources thin statewide, with specific additional impacts along that same Fredericksburg corridor, which you know includes the heavily trafficked Route 95,” Brian Moran, the commonwealth’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, said during a call with reporters.

In addition to freeing up resources, the emergency declaration activates the Virginia National Guard. Earlier this week, Northam was asked why the Guard had not been called to support state responders during the massive traffic jam. The governor said at the time that local authorities had not requested the help and that it would’ve taken too much time to deploy troops.

Tim Williams, acting general of the Virginia National Guard, noted that 50 soldiers and airmen are currently ready to help in Fredericksburg and areas north, as well as southwest Virginia.

Northam also pushed back against criticism on his Monday actiions, questioning why drivers were out in force on the highways when they had been warned to stay home, while some experts and officials from other states said they saw little Virginia could have done to prevent the logjam that occurred amid snowy conditions on I-95, the East Coast’s longest north-south artery.

Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran told The Associated Press on Thursday that no one brought the escalating problems to the attention of the governor’s Cabinet promptly on Monday. A county official eventually called him in the middle of the night.

When asked by reporters what authorities might do differently this time around to avoid the backup that paralyzed one of the country’s busiest highways, Stephen Brich, commissioner of highways for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said VDOT and other agencies are investigating the matter.

“We are in the midst of an after-action review that will take place to be able to identify those actions that were taken earlier this week and make recommendations as to other items that need to be taken into consideration when we make a decision to close an interstate,” he said.

That might include preemptively closing down a major roadway and rerouting drivers onto side streets to avoid another large backup, depending on the circumstances.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said the multi-agency review, which would involve VDOT, the Virginia State Police and Virginia Department of Emergency Management, would look at “a comprehensive timeline of what took place during the storm as well as looking at an after-action report.”

“There were extraordinary circumstances and not just the snow, but the rate of the snow, the icing, the number of disabled trucks, tractor trailers, the number of incidents that led to unprecedented blockages, which we … recognize how distressing all of this was,” Valentine said.

“So we recognize that there are gaps that we need to address to make sure, regardless of an extraordinary event, how can we deploy resources and help people as effectively as we can. So that is already underway.”

Valentine said they will be giving the public more details about the review, but didn’t give a timeline for doing so.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it harder in some states to assemble the workforce needed to plow roads. In Virginia, officials said they had enough employees, but at least one locality cited staffing shortages. Motorists also faced long delays on secondary roads while trying to avoid I-95.

When asked by WTOP about the many reports of drivers with no food or water who did not see any troopers offering assistance during the I-95 shutdown, Ron Maxey, deputy director of field operations for the Virginia State Police, said his troopers were bogged down in the traffic jam like everyone else was.

He said 18 troopers were working in the area Monday overnight, climbing to about 30 as the storm went on.

“Our vehicles, much like every other motorist out there, encounter some of the same challenges when we’re dealing with ice and snow,” Maxey said.

“It became even more challenging when we had limited shoulder width and some of the shoulders that were actually there were uncleared, and we were dealing with Jersey walls in ways that even our troopers could not get to some of these vehicles,” he added.

“So a lot of our troopers were having to go on foot checking vehicles, car to car. And again, that’s going to take a considerable amount of time when you have a limited number of troopers there on foot exposed to the elements,” Maxey said, noting that troopers gave out the snacks and other supplies they had bought to prepare for the storm themselves.

Officials also stressed that the circumstances of this upcoming storm will be very different from the previous one.

Perhaps most importantly, highway officials can pretreat the roads this time around because the weather is cold enough for the salt to stick. Last time, the weather was warm and rainy, meaning any salt would’ve quickly washed away before the snow began to fall.

“It would have been a waste of taxpayer money, it would have been a waste of the resources that we have and would have taken additional time to be able to provide a treatment that would have rendered itself useless,” Brich of VDOT said.

Pretreatment will also be easier because the snow is expected to be lighter than the heavy, wet snow that fell earlier this week, “which is hopefully good news,” said Jeff Orrock, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Wakefield, Virginia.

“The bad news is whatever falls is going to be around for a while,” Orrock said, because temperatures will barely reach into the low 30s on Friday, although sunshine should help with some of the melting.

“The timing of this is also kind of in our favor a little bit. Whereas the last of it hit us right around … rush hour, especially around the I-95 corridor, this is an overnight snowfall,” Orrock said, noting that most of the snow should be gone before the Friday morning commute begins.

“The bulk of the snowfall accumulation in the I-95 corridor … most accumulation this time is going to occur from let’s say about maybe 11 p.m. tonight until about maybe 3 to 4 a.m. tomorrow morning,” he said. “So it’s an overnight event and by the time folks get up in the morning, pretty much the event’s going to be wrapping up. The storm system’s going to be pulling off the coast and we’ll pretty much know how much snowfall we have by the time everybody gets up and looks out their window.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. 

Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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