New Virginia IG audit on what went wrong during I-95 snowstorm gridlock

A new report by Virginia’s inspector general reveals glaring missteps by state agencies during the massive snowstorm in January that shut down Interstate 95 and left motorists stranded for hours.

The 29-page audit by IG Michael Westfall of the actions taken by the Virginia departments of transportation, emergency management and the Virginia State Police during the incident, was submitted Thursday to Gov. Glenn Youngkin and included nine critical findings.

  • The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) didn’t apply lessons learned from a similar snow-caused gridlock in 2018 on Interstate 81 near Bristol.
  • The Commonwealth doesn’t have a specific emergency plan in place for dealing with snow events. Although January’s storm was atypical and the amount and speed of the snowfall was unexpected, a winter exercise planned prior to the storm was postponed, “and the fact that it was not actually held potentially contributed to challenges during the incident,” Westfall wrote.
  • Messages sent to the public, warning motorists to avoid entering I-95 were unclear and unreliable. While some motorists ignored messages, others may not have been aware of or understood the ones that were sent out.
  • Interagency communication at VDOT was not effective. For example, agency officials in Fredericksburg, which bore the brunt of the gridlock, told the IG’s office that they contacted other districts for additional resources but VDOT’s Central Office had no record of that request.
  • There weren’t sufficient resources in place at VDOT area headquarters to handle the snow removal.
  • There was no primary effort to assist stranded motorists, many of whom had to abandon their vehicles in the freezing cold, as VDOT and Virginia State Police (VSP) were primarily focused on their responsibilities to open the highway.
  • Despite the deteriorating situation, VDOT Fredericksburg management didn’t alert executive management quickly enough and the absence of a Joint Information Center early in the storm contributed to poor communication between VDOT, VSP and Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).
  • There was no backup power for traffic cameras along the affected section of I-95. Most of the traffic cameras were not operational during the storm, making it difficult for officials to assess the scope of the disaster.
  • While January storm’s intensity was unexpected, and therefore didn’t rise to the level of issuing an emergency declaration, the IG recommends that in the future, a Declaration of Preparedness should be issued to allow for more resource staging, including the National Guard being called up to help.

The report’s recommendations include VDOT applying what it learned from past events and incorporating the lessons into agency policies and procedures, increased snow-related disaster and recovery training, and communication training to improve messaging to the public during disasters.

“VDEM, VDOT and Virginia State Police management generally concurred with the findings and plan to implement corrective actions,” the report stated.

Those actions include coordinating with localities to help stranded motorists, holding an interagency winter weather exercise, conducting disaster response training with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, coordinated public messaging, and supplying back up power for a percentage of traffic cameras along I-95.

The IG’s office said it conducted interviews with the heads of the Agencies at the time of the storm, as well as front line workers as part of the audit.

In April, a 41-page after action report requested by VDOT, VDEM and VSP was published detailing the state’s response to the storm and what should be done in the future.

Last June, a report on the findings of another audit on VDOT’s snow removal process — which did not cover the Jan. 3 and Jan. 4 snow event — found that the agency does not have sufficient contractors to assist in heavy snow removal.

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Shayna Estulin

Shayna Estulin is an anchor/reporter for WTOP. She started her career in New York City as a local TV reporter and has since covered foreign affairs and national politics as a Washington correspondent. She also anchored a nightly news show for an international network.

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