RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Former and current state officials are declining interview requests after a new report concluded government agencies mishandled a snowy nightmare on Interstate 95 last January.
The more than 40-mile standstill between Richmond and Washington D.C. left hundreds of drivers stranded overnight without critical supplies.
While there were a number of complicating factors outside of the government’s control, Virginia’s watchdog agency found the state failed to adequately prepare, despite dealing with at least one similar situation in recent history.
The problems detailed by the Office of the State Inspector General in a review released late Friday occurred at the end of former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration. Northam and former Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine didn’t respond to requests for comment on Monday.
In a statement on Monday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s spokesperson Macaulay Porter said, “Under the Governor’s leadership, snow events following his inauguration were managed to the standard of preparing for worst-case scenarios as opposed to under preparing for snow emergency events.”
But new leadership serving under Gov. Youngkin said they won’t be making themselves available for interviews on what they’re doing differently to avoid repeating those mistakes in the wake of the report.
That’s significant because OSIG found many lessons learned from a similar snow incident in 2018 were not applied by the Virginia Department of Transportation during the 2022 response.
After the 2018 backup on Interstate 81 near Bristol, there were calls to establish clear protocols to communicate potential worst case scenarios “early and assertively” to the public.
But during the 2022 standstill, OSIG found the state’s communication strategy was ineffective.
“Some motorists received messages to avoid the area and ignored them, while others may not have been aware of the messages at all,” the report said. “In addition, during the storm, communications did not clearly state the need to avoid travel on I-95 or provided inaccurate information.”
For example, the report cites one message via the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which said, “I-95 Drivers: State & locals coming ASAP with supplies & to move you.”
Despite the message, many drivers said they never saw those supplies as they ran out of food, water and gasoline. State officials said weather conditions made it impossible to reach much of the highway.
The report further stated that “VDEM had reservations about sending the message as it believed it was not accurate.”
While frontline responders shared what supplies they had with stranded drivers, OSIG found that “there was no primary effort to assist stranded motorists, many of whom abandoned their vehicles and sought shelter in nearby hotels.”
OSIG told the state to identify which agency would be responsible for this task in the future.
Additionally, the report said intra-agency communications at VDOT were ineffective.
“In OSIG’s opinion, VDOT Fredericksburg management did not respond quickly enough to raise awareness of the situation with executive management,” the report said. “Without situational awareness in the 2022 I-95 Snow Incident, efforts to manage the snow storm and the effect on citizens were not coordinated to ensure timely response.”
In a statement, VDOT said they are committed to making improvements to keep travelers and workers safe. The agency said some steps are already underway.
For example, VDOT said they held a statewide preparedness workshop with state and local leadership earlier this summer covering messaging, situational awareness and securing adequate resources for snow season. The agency said staff are taking FEMA courses to improve crisis communication skills.
Additionally, several state agencies have drafted a framework to address long-term closures where vehicles are stopped, including a tool already being used in some other states that provides emergency notifications by text message.
“Procurement of this system is complete and we are working with Information Logistics, Inc., to deploy it within the next 60-90 days,” VDOT’s statement continued.
According to the report’s “Corrective Action Plan,” agencies are expecting to implement the majority of OSIG’s recommendations by December 2022, but at least two key steps will take longer.
The report found that the Virginia Department of Emergency Management has no hazard specific plan for heavy snowfall. A review of the “Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Operations Plan (COVEOP) All-Hazards” to identify gaps and improvements isn’t set to be complete until July 2023.
In a statement on Monday, VDEM said, “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 policies and/or procedures. This process will also include collaborating with our local, state and private sector partners to ensure that efforts are coordinated and communicated in a timely manner.”
Another complicating factor during the storm was that most, if not all, of the traffic cameras in that area of I-95 were not operational due to power outages. Planning for possible backup power for certain cameras won’t be complete until July 2023 and it’s not clear how long it will take to execute that plan.
“Without the cameras and with limited communication, there was no ability to see the big perspective of the problem,” the report said.
Virginia State Police said they are also reviewing the report and working collaboratively with VDOT and VDEM to improve the state’s response to severe winter weather events.