With more bad weather looming, officials in Virginia sought to reassure the public Thursday as they reacted to harsh criticism of their response to a blizzard earlier this week that left hundreds of motorists stranded on Interstate 95 in freezing temperatures.
Contrary to his response to Monday’s storm, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of winter weather that was expected to set in the state on Thursday evening, and he called on the National Guard for help. from Virginia. Measures are needed this time around, his office said, due to the lingering effects of the first storm.
Northam also fended off criticism, questioning why drivers were out in force on freeways despite being warned to stay home, while some experts and officials from other states said they saw little that Virginia could have done to prevent the deadlock that occurred amid snow conditions on I-95, the longest north-south thoroughfare on the East Coast.
Public Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Brian Moran told The Associated Press on Thursday that no one brought the escalating issues to the attention of the governor’s office quickly on Monday. A county official finally called him in the middle of the night.
Virginia officials have vowed to review the state’s response, but it’s unclear exactly how they’ll do it. In an unusually detailed press briefing Thursday to discuss upcoming weather preparations, a Cabinet secretary suggested a joint investigation is possible; others said each state agency would conduct its own investigation.
Similar investigations in other states resulted in overhauled warning systems, additional snow-clearing equipment, and more aggressive road treatments.
In Virginia, state lawmakers, local officials, at least two members of Congress, and the AAA Auto Club have called for action. Stafford County Supervisory Board Chairman Crystal Vanuch, a lifelong Republican, said on Thursday the standoff was “possibly the biggest disaster we’ve ever seen.”
According to Vanuch, the county emergency operations command received about 1,800 calls for service in a 24-hour period – more than five times the normal number – and local rescuers told him they were not receiving the help they needed from government officials.
She said she called Moran at 1 a.m. on Tuesday and by dawn state officials had started deploying resources, including helicopters to inspect the roads and see where the people were. worst choke points.
Northam, a Democrat who is stepping down later this month, said in an unusually combative interview on Wednesday that he “was fed up with people talking about what was wrong.”
He told WRVA radio that no one was hurt and people should thank first responders and rescuers.
In a conciliatory follow-up statement Thursday, Northam said he was trying to express his gratitude to the police and other workers who had put in 30 to 40 hours at a stretch under difficult circumstances.
In the statement, he also said he had compassion for drivers who were stuck in a “scary situation” and reiterated his commitment to do “everything possible to prevent this from happening again”.
Many motorists said they were offered little assistance while stuck in traffic on I-95, which officials said began Monday morning after a utility vehicle was put in portfolio. As the heavy, wet snow fell, more cars and trucks became unusable, further blocking traffic and preventing snow removal. Traffic eventually came to a complete stop, leaving some travelers stranded for more than 24 hours.
Officials had said pre-treating the roads was not an option as the storm started as rain, which would have washed away any chemical brine solution.
Transport experts and officials elsewhere have recognized the difficulty.
“If we have an event that begins with rain and the transition to snow, we are not preparing, because it would be a waste of time and money,” the spokesman for the transport department of the Ohio, Matt Bruning.
Andy Alden, a transportation researcher at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, said from his perspective that the state did “pretty much right.”
Recent high-profile traffic stacks in other states have led to overhauled systems that appeared to help avert future disasters.
After a 2014 winter snowstorm crippled the Atlanta area with less than 3 inches of snow, stranding drivers in cars overnight and forcing children to sleep in their schools, the state a developed a plan to alert residents more quickly to impending winter storms, more than doubled its fleet of snow removal equipment, and began keeping more salt and gravel on hand.
In New Jersey, which regularly faces winter conditions on its freeways, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has faced numerous complaints after a snowstorm in 2018 left drivers stranded on major freeways. His predecessor, Republican Chris Christie, complained that it took him five hours to travel about 30 miles (48 kilometers).
Murphy has since been known to over-prepare for storms, sending trucks down the brine roads before storms that never materialize.
“I think it costs 17 cents a mile to brine the road, so if we become the brine state of America, I won’t be sorry about that,” he said in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it more difficult in some states to mobilize the workforce needed to clear snow from roads. In Virginia, officials said they had enough staff, but at least one locality spoke of staff shortages. Motorists also faced long delays on secondary roads when trying to avoid I-95.
Virginia State Police officials, who have long noted staffing issues, said they increased the number of troops assigned only to the freeway to 30 on Tuesday, after starting Monday with about 18 across the region.
Ron Maxey, VSP’s deputy field operations director, said many soldiers left on foot to check stranded motorists and shared some of their own food.
Natalie Simpson, professor and emergency services expert at the University of Buffalo School of Management, said she saw no immediate evidence Virginia officials missed a step that could have alleviated the traffic jam more early this week. But Simpson said governments around the world need to do a better job of planning to provide assistance to stranded drivers.
“Once traffic stops on a freeway, a freeway becomes a prison,” she said.
Associated Press contributors to this report included: Sara Cline in Portland, Oregon; Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio; Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; and Matthew Barakat in Falls Church, Virginia.
This story has been edited to correct that the Northam radio interview took place on Wednesday, not Thursday.