I-95 Snow Nightmare Over

It took more than 24 hours but traffic is moving again.

WTOP (“I-95 in Va. reopens as motorists battle bailout traffic jam on Route 1“):

Interstate 95 in Virginia fully reopened Tuesday night after more than a day of blockage, which caused havoc for thousands of commuters who were trapped on to the roadway for hours.

To clear the roads and evacuate motorists, northbound and southbound lanes of Interstate 95 from exit 152 (Dumfries Road) to exit 104 (Carmel Church) were closed to travel. Crews continued work to remove stopped trucks, treat the roads for icing and remove snow. Motorists were also encouraged to avoid the area, or use local routes to reach their destinations.

Initially, officials expected the closed section of I-95 to reopen by Wednesday morning’s rush hour with no traffic-related injuries or deaths reported as a result of the shutdown. Emergency crews were able to move all disabled vehicles off the interstate in order to reopen the roads by Tuesday evening. 

In a tweet, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said that despite I-95 reopening, drivers should stay off the roads as travel conditions remain hazardous through Stafford, Spotsylvania and Caroline counties.

With commuters looking for alternate routes out of I-95, traffic delays have also grown along Route 1 between Woodbridge and Fredericksburg, according to Dave Dildine in the WTOP Traffic Center.

The traffic center also reported all traffic stopped on both directions due to icy conditions on US-1 near Telegraph Road and Boswell’s Corner near Quantico. WTOP’s Rich Hunter reports that Stafford County Sheriff’s Office have contacted VDOT for assistance as salt trucks treat the road.

The base at Quantico, where I work, is closed for a third straight day. As I live to the north, I generally access it via exit 150A while those who live to the south do so via exit 148.

The good news is that, while hundreds, if not thousands, of people were stranded in extremely cold for around here temperatures (it was in the teens Monday night and well into Tuesday) for quite a long time, nobody died as a result of this. While my natural inclination is to blame most of these people for failing to heed warnings to avoid driving in the storm, most seem to be blaming the governor and other state officials for not doing more ahead of time.

His explanation is actually pretty good:

In a phone call with reporters, Northam said that rain falling before Monday morning’s snowstorm would have washed away any chemicals or salt used to pretreat the roads.

“First we had rain, which meant that we couldn’t adequately pretreat the roads. Then we had slushy snow that fell a lot faster than our snow plows could move it,” Northam said. “And then, as night fell, the temperatures dropped below freezing. All those together created the perfect storm for what happened on I-95.”

In addition to the preliminary conditions, multiple tractor-trailers that jackknifed on the highway, further complicated cleanup efforts.

“When that happens, it’s going to create a mess … and it’s going to take time to clean up, whether it happens in a winter storm or on a sunny summer day,” Northam said.

In response to questions about why Virginia’s National Guard had not been called to support state responders, Northam said the Guard had received no requests from localities along I-95. He also said deploying the Guard wouldn’t have been an “immediate solution” to the crisis.

“Remember that our guard members have day jobs. In fact, as you all remember last Jan. 6, we sent the National Guard to help at the Capitol after the insurrection, but it was the next day before they were able to arrive.”

And he repeated the pre-storm advice:

“We don’t need more people on the highways, we need to clear the highway,” the governor said. “So I would ask people to stay off our roads until we can get them clear.”

I get that some people had little choice. One woman who tweeted her way through the ordeal noted that her flight back from Florida had been repeatedly delayed and she needed to get back home. One person in the above-quoted WTOP article was trying to get someone to “essential surgery” and another to get to a father’s funeral in the southern part of the state. And I’m sure a lot of “essential” workers had to get to their jobs at the risk of being fired or got released from their job after the storm got going.

I’m still trying to figure out why Senator Tim Kaine, who left his house well into the storm when it was obvious it was going to be pretty bad, drove to the Capitol. I appreciate my public servants putting in a good day’s work but the Senate was only in a pro forma session for 17 minutes Monday and, surely, it would have been better for his staff to work remotely rather than risk their lives—not to mention interfering with snow removal crews—by being on the road.

UPDATE: Shortly after posting, I saw an interview with Kaine as he arrived at the Capitol and he explained that he was en route to a meeting on the voting rights bill. Which, of course, could easily have been turned into a conference call or Zoom meeting—as evidenced by the fact that it was in fact turned into a conference call, which he participated in via his mobile phone while stuck in the car.

I will say that he has handled all of this with good humor. Virginia politics is odd, in that governors are ineligible to serve consecutive terms. So both Kaine (2006 to 2010) and his colleague Mark Warner (2002-2006) are both former governors. As such, Kaine has a pretty good sense of how hard Northam’s job is. That, presumably combined with them both being Democrats, means he’s loathe to blame the governor for failing to anticipate the storm being way worse than forecast.

FILED UNDER: Natural Disasters
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jc says:

    Basically those who had valid reasons for being out there and those not from this area are excused and have my sympathy. Everyone else from this area should know better. DMV area, in general, sucks in winter weather response. Traffic, congestion, overcrowding is nuts with clear skies and 70 degrees…throw in just two inches of snow around here and it’s normally chaos and disorder. 45+ years I have learned, when it snows around here, it’s usually not worth it to go out unless absolutely necessary.

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  2. grumpy realist says:

    My roommate and I used to joke that the only thing the USSR would have to do to totally paralyse our government is drop 6 inches of snow on DC.

    The one mistake they may have done (and they may have had problems with people being out from COVID) is that you always want to send the plows out as soon as it starts snowing and keep them running around throughout the snowstorm. The one advantage Virginia has (somewhat) is hills, so snow plowed off the roads doesn’t immediately get blown back on to the roads. Our problem here in Illinois is flat flat flat everything, so shoving stuff off a road doesn’t necessarily clear it for more than 10 minutes.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    There are a lot of facets to this, but something that immediately caught my attention is how many trucks are in that backup. I wonder if deregulation has contributed to this, where drivers get paid only by delivery and so any time they spend off the highway and in a rest stop waiting for the storm to pass would just come out of their pocket. Given the poor pay, many of them can’t afford it and might just decide to take a chance.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan:

    drivers get paid only by delivery and so any time they spend off the highway and in a rest stop waiting for the storm to pass would just come out of their pocket

    That occurred to me as well. Plus, that stretch of I-95 is just lousy with trucks all the time. No matter when I get on headed south, it’s wall-to-wall 18-wheelers.

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  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Tim Kaine’s meeting certainly could have been switched to Zoom–or simply cancelled altogether considering that Republicans are not going to support expanded voting rights. Not now. Not tomorrow. Not even if they retake control and can seize credit for doing it. Not ever.

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  6. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    Trucks own the highways. Everyone else is just passing through.

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  7. Michael Cain says:

    @James Joyner:

    That occurred to me as well. Plus, that stretch of I-95 is just lousy with trucks all the time. No matter when I get on headed south, it’s wall-to-wall 18-wheelers.

    Post-WWII, American railroads decided that they were no longer going to be in the scheduled freight delivery business. Your boxcar full of goods would move out when there was a full train’s worth of cars, and not before. If it took two days for your boxcar of goods to transit the rail yards in Chicago, so be it. That plus the construction of the interstate highway system made it inevitable that those roads would be filled with tractor-trailer rigs, meeting the (then and now) very large demand for scheduled long-distance freight service.

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  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan: “I wonder if deregulation has contributed to this, where drivers get paid only by delivery and so any time they spend off the highway and in a rest stop waiting for the storm to pass would just come out of their pocket.”

    Certainly deregulation worsened situations for long haul drivers, but paying out of your own pocket for waiting for storms to pass has been the condition of record for as long as I’ve been around. We didn’t encourage drivers traveling through bad weather conditions to “make the drop on time no matter what,” but regulations didn’t deter us, concern for our property–the load–and the relationships we had with drivers who had long-standing relationships with our branch did. It would certainly be sad though, if those types of considerations are glimpses of a bygone era.

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  9. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Americans have a strange attitude to government in that we expect things to work and if they don’t it’s because someone screwed up; conspiracy theorists take it to the next level that someone screwed up deliberately according to an evil plan. Sometimes *bleep* just happens and it’s incumbent on us to take that into account when planning our own actions. There would be so much less stress all around if we did.

    I’m wondering when our attitudes got so twisted around that taking cognizance of reality into our calculations became unnecessary.

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  10. Michael Cain says:

    In an (almost completely) different life I lived in New Jersey. Every time it snowed the roads were a nightmare. I fairly quickly figured out why the places I had formerly lived with snow, and the place I live now that can be quite snowy, dealt with the problem and NJ could not. First, not all snow is the same. NJ got wet, heavy snow. Run a couple of cars over it and it gets packed into near ice immediately. Where I live now, snow is light and fluffy and it takes a lot of cars to pack it down rather than blowing it off the tracks where the tires run. Second is that to be effective, snowplows have to run at speed. In NJ it was always impossible to do that because of the cars and trucks sitting on the road, or crawling along.

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  11. MarkedMan says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: Part of me agrees with you wholeheartedly. America has become a nation of whiners, and this transition knows no political or geographical boundaries. 90% of dialog has become, “I’ve been inconvenienced because everyone is an idiot.” Just look at on-line headlines at, say, The Atlantic. Most start out with some variation of “Why We Failed To…”

    But another part of me says that the people given responsibility for the roads need to look long and hard at what happened and what can be done to mitigate it in the future. Weather is only going to get extreme more often, and states like VA can no longer rely on the fact that, up to now, a 10 inch snowstorm happened only every other decade. And, as a headline I glance at this morning warned, technological changes are only going to make things more interesting. What would happen if those cars and trucks had all been electric? Interior lights and the radio don’t burn any battery power worth worrying about, but how long would the battery last if it had to heat a car in sub freezing weather?

    Most Republicans don’t believe in the government planning and anticipating any more, but even a Republican governor knows the pollitical wisdom nothing will get you defeated faster than failing to get the snow shoveled.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    It’s been my experience that everywhere I’ve lived, except this last move to FL, had about the same degree of trouble with snow. It’s just that as you go north, they spend more money to get to that point. Bureaucracies don’t do well with new. If, as AGW continues, N VA, MD, DC, and various municipalities continue to get slammed like this, they’ll slowly adapt.

    @MarkedMan: The CDC and the rest of the bureaucracy dealt with COVID as best they could, but there was inevitably a lot of confusion, all exacerbated by having beyond incompetent top leadership interested only in the politics and perhaps some profiteering. And it did absolutely no good to have everybody and their brother kibitzing. The kibitzing drove the mistrust more than any confusion. So you get the right, including judges who should know better, going, “Vaccination hasn’t ended COVID completely, so what’s the point, and they were lying all along.” And the MSM is little better than FOX. Determined to find conflict and drama no matter how hard they have to work at it.

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  13. Hal_10000 says:

    Kaine frequently reminds me of why I thought the best outcome in 2016 would have been to elect and then impeach Clinton, getting rid of both of our headaches.

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