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Report on Virginia’s response to January snowstorm released

This image provided by the Virginia Department of Transportation shows a closed section of...
This image provided by the Virginia Department of Transportation shows a closed section of Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va., Monday Jan. 3, 2022. Both northbound and southbound sections of the highway were closed due to snow and ice.(Source: Virginia Department of Transportation via AP)
Published: Apr. 1, 2022 at 5:43 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 1, 2022 at 11:22 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The report on Virginia’s response to the January snowstorm and I-95 backup has been released.

On Jan. 3 and 4, hundreds of travelers were trapped on icy, snow-covered roads for more than 36 hours from Ashland to northern Virginia.

The external review examined the state’s widely-criticized response to the chaos.

According to the report’s findings, the Virginia Department of Transportation, Virginia State Police, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management were ill-prepared for the magnitude of what happened, and that staffing shortages also hampered some response.

The report found that the agencies used various methods to communicate with the public before and after the storm, but messaging at times lacked specific instructions.

Findings said the state needs to update the way it communicates to the public that travel is too dangerous. Still, drivers also bear responsibility for staying informed about travel conditions during storms.

According to the report, warmer temperatures upward of 60 degrees the day before the storm reduced the public’s attention and urgency to the snow threat. The report alleges that the spike of the Omicron COVID-19 variant and the New Year’s holiday led to higher traffic volume on I-95 from people returning home, which impacted how VDOT and emergency services were able to respond.

The report also found that on-road messaging and its snow clearing staging areas could be improved. In addition, the report says that despite its mobilization efforts, VDOT’s snowplow operations eventually fell behind as conditions worsened, and downed trees and powerlines further impacted travel. The lack of alternate routes between Richmond and D.C. and unpassable secondary roads only intensified the problem.

“VDOT’s top priority is and always will be the safety of the traveling public, and as we learn from each event, this report highlighted key areas for us to refine in our winter-weather operations,” said Virginia Commissioner of Highways Stephen Brich. “Our on-road messaging, snow-clearing resource staging and partner engagement are all areas in which we are exploring new approaches to improve our response. Above all, we remain committed to better executing our mission of keeping Virginia’s transportation system safe every day and in the face of future extreme weather events. "

Governor Glenn Youngkin released the following statement regarding the report.

“This report demonstrates as the storm changed in intensity and left Virginians and travelers stranded on I-95, the previous administration’s leadership did not properly prepare or communicate. Since assuming office on January 15th, our administration has worked very closely with Virginia State Police, our Virginia National Guard, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, and the Virginia Department of Transportation responding quickly and adequately to each incoming weather-related event and I’ve been incredibly pleased with our execution. We have weathered three big snowstorms successfully. Our focus is on preparation, communication and execution. Virginians can trust that we are working to keep them safe.”

In a letter to Gov. Youngkin, his transportation director Shepard Miller was critical of former Governor Ralph Northam, accusing his administration of almost not communicating better with VDOT and VDEM to mitigate the crisis that unfolded on I-95.

“The review of this incident revealed that the Commonwealth’s response was overcome by the severity and magnitude of the storm and the administration failed to recognize its effects until January 5th,” Miller said. “The report indicates that prior to January 3rd, storm executive action was not taken to prepare for the possibilities of an event more severe than the initial ‘likely’ weather scenario provided by the outside weather service.”

NBC12 reached out to Gov. Youngkin’s transportation secretary, Shepard Willis, for a comment but has not heard back.

State Senator Tim Kaine, among the thousands of Virginians stranded on I-95 in sub-freezing conditions, says he’s hopeful the report will better prepare the state for the future.

“Being stranded on a frozen highway for dozens of hours is dangerous, and we should do everything we can to avoid another crisis like the one hundreds of Virginians, and I experienced on I-95,” Kaine said. “I’m glad to see that the Virginia Department of Transportation has conducted a thorough analysis of the jam, so we can improve communication and be better prepared in the future.”

The snowstorm dumped three and a half inches of snow an hour at its peak, making it the most significant snowfall in the area in the last six years

In the future, the report says that planning for large-scale closures during winter events should include the following:

  • Essential elements of information (e.g., length of highway affected, duration of expected stoppage, number of lanes open, roadway conditions, time of day, weather) that trigger deliberations on response escalation.
  • A concept of operations for how closures will work, including the multiple simultaneous activities involved. This includes interagency training on the concept of operations and developed plans.
  • The roles, responsibilities, resources, and tactics (such as sending snow plows against the normal flow of traffic) are required to keep the road passable and, if conditions warrant, close highway segments, including state and local agencies that will support each activity.
  • A communications plan that includes options for multimedia approaches coordination with other agencies (e.g., airport authorities) and states, and plans for state, local, and interagency coordination.

You can read the full report HERE.

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