I-95 meltdown: Audit cites failures in response to storm that crippled I-95

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Virginia agencies failed to apply lessons from a chaotic snowstorm that crippled a southwest Virginia highway in 2018, then repeated similar missteps in response to a January storm that blocked hundreds of people overnight on Interstate 95, according to a new audit.

The independent review from the Virginia Inspector General’s office offers new clues to what happened for 36 hours along the highway south of the nation’s capital. It also issues 18 corrective actions to state transportation, emergency and police agencies, intended to put in place better response protocols that would help avoid problems in future storms.

“We’re hoping for improvements, so the next time something like this happens, it won’t cause us to stop. [Interstate] 95,” said Benjamin Sutphin, who led the audit at the state inspector general’s office.

As heavy rain fell in the early hours of January 3, snow removal crews were quickly overwhelmed, tractor-trailers jackknifed on hilly stretches, and motorists were trapped without food, water or fuel supplies. essence. The hallway became impassable, but it wasn’t until the next morning that Virginia leaders officially closed it. The incident raised questions about the state’s disaster preparedness and sparked calls for changes to emergency protocols.

How the East Coast’s Busiest Freeway Turned Out: 36 Hours of Confusion and Misery on I-95

The inspector general’s report echoes findings released in April by Arlington-based consulting firm CNA in a state-commissioned review of how the Virginia Department of Transportation, state police and the department of emergency management responded to the storm which paralyzed traffic for 48 miles. That review cited a list of factors that contributed to the outage, including power outages that destroyed traffic cameras, road conditions that hampered monitoring and reporting, and a “geographical misalignment” in the center of Virginia in which bureaucratic boundaries drawn by agencies hampered in-person coordination. .

The report released Friday, however, is more critical, saying the state failed to communicate effectively internally or with the public amid rapidly deteriorating conditions as the storm dropped more than 12 inches of snow. Snowplows couldn’t keep up when the state didn’t have a coordinated action plan, the report said.

“The state was prepared for what was expected that day. They weren’t prepared for what really happened,” Sutphin said. “And because they didn’t learn some of the lessons of 2018, they were less prepared than they could have been.”

Officials from the three state agencies said Monday they are reviewing the report’s findings and working to make changes in response. Agencies have agreed to update certain policies in the coming months.

The I-95 collapse could have been minimized, if not prevented, had the state followed recommendations issued after a December 2018 storm that grounded Interstate 81 for nearly 24 hours, state officials say. ‘audit. An after action report of this incident in the Bristol area called for changes ranging from establishing a central coordinated command center to strengthening inter-agency communications and developing a back-up plan when cameras from traffic do not work, as well as the carrying out of well-being checks on motorists. A VDOT memo after this incident highlighted the need for clearer messages to drivers.

“They came up with many ideas that, if they had pursued them – for example, the incident command center – they would have worked together rather than working blindly, without a single piece with all parties to help make decisions,” Sutphin said.

The state has failed to implement recommendations from that 2018 storm, the IG report concluded. Its first two corrective actions call on the VDOT, VDEM, and state police to apply lessons learned from past events — including incidents I-81 and I-95 — and incorporate them into policies and procedures. The agencies agreed to review and update the policies by the end of the year.

Virginia agencies failed to see full extent of I-95 collapse, report says

During snow events, the VDOT is tasked with clearing roads to keep traffic flowing while the State Police respond to traffic accidents, direct traffic, and escort emergency services. VDEM helps coordinate the resources of aid agencies and jurisdictions. The agency has contingency plans for natural disasters, the audit found, but does not have plans specifically for dangerous snow events.

The IG recommended that the VDEM establish criteria for disaster-level snowfall, develop snow removal best practices, and help stranded motorists during crippling snowfalls. Lauren Opett, spokeswoman for the agency, said VDEM was working with staff members to review the findings and corrective actions.

“Our agency remains committed to serving the Commonwealth in all mission areas of emergency management and will endeavor to implement any necessary changes to current policies and/or procedures,” she said in a statement. .

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the department is reviewing the report and “working cooperatively with VDOT and VDEM to improve our abilities to respond to severe winter weather events.”

VDOT spokeswoman Marshall Herman said in a statement that the agency is working to implement the IG’s recommendations and is “committed to making improvements to our practices in order to achieve our mission.” during snowstorms – keeping travelers and workers safe”.

Herman said the VDOT has already made several changes, including increasing training for communications staff and developing a plan on how to deal with long-term road closures. The state is contracting out a service to text drivers in emergencies, she said. When the agency began planning for winter earlier this summer, Herman said, state officials included readiness training that focused on improving messaging.

The IG found that public messaging during the storm was not effective, noting that communications did not clearly state the need to avoid traveling on I-95 or, in some cases, provided inaccurate information. Another recommendation was for agencies to define who is in charge of messaging during an event such as the January storm, which spanned multiple jurisdictions and agencies.

“In crisis communications, the message to the public should be clear and authoritative about what action to take,” the report said. “Some motorists received messages to avoid the area and ignored them, while others may not have been aware of the messages at all.”

6 Reasons Conditions on I-95 Worse in the Jan. 3 Snowstorm

The Inspector General has urged the VDOT to draw up a contingency plan in the event of a power failure limiting the availability of traffic cameras. Power outages cut out cameras in the Fredericksburg area, creating challenges and frustrations among officials who couldn’t see road conditions.

The report instructed VDOT to investigate the possibility of acquiring traffic cameras equipped to operate on other power sources.

“The fact that they don’t have a backup on these cameras just surprised us because they’re an integral part of traffic management,” Sutphin said. “The fact that they didn’t have backup power on something so important, and then they didn’t have the ability to communicate effectively in other ways, it really affected the awareness of the situation.”

The inspector general’s office said it will monitor state agencies’ progress as they implement the recommendations, some of which have December deadlines.

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