RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new inspection report found the Commonwealth did not implement lessons learned during the Interstate 95 snow incident that occurred in January 2022.
On Monday, Jan. 3, and Tuesday, Jan. 4, Virginia’s first major snowstorm caught drivers on I-95 off-guard and caused the roadway to freeze over.
“This storm came at a time when many new snow removal contractors and employees were coming on board with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and had not undergone the typical training provided prior to COVID-19,” said State Inspector General Michael Westfall. “When the storm intensified and traffic slowed due to disabled vehicles, including jackknifed tractor trailers, the resulting traffic backed up significantly and impacted VDOT’s ability to clear the roadway as plows could not remove the accumulating snow.”
An audit of the incident conducted by the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG), released today, claimed that the Commonwealth did not take action to prevent such an incident, following a similar occurrence on Interstate 81 in 2018.
According to the report, the 2018 incident resulted in a VDOT After Action Report that included recommendations to prevent more incidents like that one that occurred on I-95.
Following the 2018 I-81 snow incident, the VDOT Chief Engineer issued a memo on lessons learned and included action items for the department to implement moving forward. According to the report, these action items included:
- Establishing protocols for a more assertive “do not travel” message to the public.
- Placing an emphasis on situational awareness beyond the immediate tasks at hand.
- Obtaining lessons learned from other state departments of transportation for severe winter events.
- Ensuring effective communication through verification of events and staying current on changing conditions.
- Ensuring a protocol is in place to communicate potential worse-case scenarios early and assertively to the public, motorists and affected governments through multiple media sources.
According to the report, many of these items were not implemented by VDOT during the 2022 incident.
In addition, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management was found to have general emergency plans for natural disasters but it was not found to have specific response planning in place for snow-hazard events, according to the report.
This meant that when VDEM attempted to use methods that had worked in the past, the severity of the 2022 storm made these efforts ineffective. According to the report, the following factors made VDEM methods ineffective:
- The rain made pre-treatment ineffective on the roadway.
- The rain softened the ground and made trees unstable.
- A sudden drop in temperature caused a quick freeze.
- The 2022 New Year’s holiday traffic increased due to airport shutdowns because of COVID and other reasons such as airline staffing.
- COVID impacted snow removal resources.
- Heavy and wet snowfall, high winds and power outages were unexpected.
- The public did not heed warnings about a significant snow storm with spring-like temperatures in the days leading up to the storm.
All of these factors resulted in uniquely severe conditions that VDEM was unprepared for.
Communications to the public were also deemed ineffective by the report as demonstrated by the traffic backups that occurred on I-95 near Fredericksburg.
According to the report, public warnings were issued as early as Jan. 2 but the spring-like weather on the early days may have caused the travelers to discount the chance of significant winter weather. The report also stated that during the storm, communications failed to clearly state the need to avoid travel on I-95 and in some cases provided inaccurate information.
“Either the public received messages to avoid the area and ignored them or they did not receive the messages,” Westfall said.
Recommendations from the report included improving on applying lessons learned, introducing snow-related disaster response, subsequent training and more. The report also encouraged VDEM to provide communication training for all three agencies involved.
VDOT, VDEM and Virginia State Police reportedly agreed with OSIG’s findings and recommendations.
The full report can be found and read here.