Snow Hits DC, Idiocy Ensues

People failing to treat emergencies as emergencies make matters worse.

The long and winding road that leads to my door

While we get snow with some regularity in the DC area, we don’t get anything like the amounts common further north and, consequentially, aren’t equipped to handle it. This is exacerbated by the metroplex consisting of a Federal District with limited home rule and little ability to tax most who work there, parts of Virginia, and parts of Maryland. While there are snow plows and budgets for treating the roads and such, it can take some time.

When I woke up Sunday morning, the weather app on my phone showed a Winter Weather Warning, notifying me that we were likely to get 3-5 inches on Monday. That came as a surprise, as it had been unseasonably warm on Christmas and New Year, with highs well into the 60s. So, I anticipated that schools would likely close and that I would be working from home yesterday and likely today. This proved correct.

Apparently, quite a number of people were surprised, despite ample warning to stay home and off the roads unless absolutely necessary.

CNN (“Motorists stranded for hours along I-95 after winter storm causes havoc and leaves more than 400,000 without power“):

Drivers were stranded for hours on a major interstate Monday night after a severe winter storm caused a massive backup — and authorities scrambled to clear a path.

“We wish we had a timetable, ETA or an educated guess on when travel will resume on I-95,” the Virginia Department of Transportation said on Twitter, describing the situation as frustrating and scary.

Motorists expressed their anger on social media as they sat in vehicles, unable to move and worried about the falling temperature after a storm that dropped several inches of snow across the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast and left more than 400,000 customers without power.

The section of I-95 in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, area was blocked by multiple disabled vehicles and downed trees, VDOT said.

“As VDOT removes disabled vehicles, and plows/treats road to make it safe for passage as they are removed, (Virginia State Police) troopers will reach each driver,” VDOT said.

The Fredericksburg area received at least 14 inches of snow from the storm, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) in the Baltimore/Washington area. Fredericksburg sits between Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

An estimated 20 to 30 trucks were stuck on I-95 northbound near the Thornburg exit, according to VDOT, which said towing crews were on the scene.

WaPo (“3 killed, 1 injured in weather-related crash as D.C. grapples with biggest snow since pandemic“):

Three people were killed Monday evening in Montgomery County when a car collided with a snowplow hours after a winter storm dumped several inches of snow across the Washington region, an area largely spared from blizzards during two years of intermittent pandemic shutdowns.

One person was critically injured in the crash, which occurred about 6:45 p.m. on Columbia Pike at Briggs Chaney Road in the White Oak-Burtonsville area of eastern Montgomery, officials said. Initial accounts indicated that the car had run into the rear of the plow.

The storm brought power outages, traffic snarls on major highways and untimely closures of coronavirus testing sites.

As adults grappled with school cancellations and the suspension of Metrobus service, children ventured outside to celebrate the most snow to fall in one storm since January 2019 — a time when antigen testing was not a holiday ritual and mask-wearing largely was confined to Halloween.

Crews in several jurisdictions treated roads and highways amid hundreds of vehicle crashes, transportation officials said. By midmorning, the region was covered in heavy, wet snow that left vehicles stuck on roads, bridges and ramps and brought down tree branches, knocking out power service.

The snowy conditions led to scores of vehicle crashes across the region, including a pileup along Interstate 95 in Virginia. A crash involving six tractor-trailers closed southbound I-95 near Centreport Parkway (Exit 136) in Stafford County, the Virginia Department of Transportation said. Northbound I-95 was down to one lane near Courthouse Road (Exit 140) in Stafford because of disabled tractor-trailers, the agency said. At 11:37 p.m., the agency’s Fredericksburg District said in a tweet that about 20 to 30 trucks were “stuck near the Matta River area” south of exit 118 on northbound I-95.

In Northern Virginia, about 2,000 trucks and snowplows treated roads, according to Ellen Kamilakis, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Transportation.

Many drivers were stranded or damaged their cars after “going too fast for conditions,” the Virginia State Police tweeted. “Pls stay off the roads. Limit travel only if necessary.”

Maryland State Police said officers had responded to 199 crashes and 237 disabled or unattended vehicles through 9:30 p.m. Virginia State Police had responded to 559 crashes through early afternoon.

Traffic along the Capital Beltway’s outer loop near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was stopped about 11 a.m. because the snow made it impassable, transportation officials said. Jackknifed tractor-trailers left eastbound Route 50 closed in Maryland and westbound Interstate 64 blocked in Virginia. No injuries were reported.

[..]

Vito Maggiolo, spokesman for the D.C. fire department, said firefighters responded to numerous calls for vehicles stuck in snow and downed trees and power wires. He said there were reports of fire vehicles having difficulties getting around some snow-covered streets “primarily because we have people out on the road who shouldn’t be on the road.”

[…]

Kevin Whitaker, a retired federal employee who lives on the edge of Arlington County, said snowplows had still not reached his street in the Rock Spring neighborhood as of Monday evening.

That left a frustrating — and almost absurdist — disparity in accessible roads in the area. On his stretch of 38th Street North, the uncollected snowfall had begun to freeze into six-inch-high ruts. But down the street in Fairfax County, the road had been clean and dry for hours.

To make matters worse, Whitaker said, county officials pushed back promises to resume trash and recycling pickup by only a matter of days. And when he tried to submit a complaint on the county’s website about the unplowed snow, the site refused to accept new submissions.

Having lived on and off in Arlington for about four decades, “I’ve just never seen a situation where they haven’t cleared the roads at all,” said Whitaker, 64. “The reality is frustrating. … At the end of the day, we’re all counting on the county to do the right thing.”

Arlington officials said in a statement that snow removal is “currently impacted by COVID19-related staffing shortages” and that roads “are being cleared as quickly and safely as possible.” Like some other jurisdictions in the region, the county has set up an online map for residents to check the status of plowing progress on their street.

I don’t know these people’s circumstances. Maybe they legitimately had no choice but to be on the road. But too many folks just ignore the conditions, conducting their lives as though nothing is going on. Need something from Walmart? Why, I’m going out!

It’s selfish and stupid. And compounds the problem, making it impossible for snowplows, treatment trucks, power trucks, and emergency vehicles that absolutely need to be on the road to take care of business.

FILED UNDER: Society
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. grumpy realist says:

    Maybe we should start treating them like idiot mountain climbers or boaters who get themselves into trouble after they’ve been warned not to do the actions they have done and need to get rescued. Charge them for the trouble they’ve caused and whatever is needed to pay for the cost of the tow-truck/plow/whatever services they’ve used.

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  2. Mikey says:

    IIRC we’ve both lived in NoVA for about the same amount of time (late 2003) and while there have been some notable snow events, the closest I can remember to this was the 2011 “Car-mageddon” ice storm which had people stuck on 495 for hours.

    What was weird about yesterday was how quickly it transitioned from rain to snow and how fast the snow came down. At my house in Fairfax it dumped nearly 10 inches of snow in about four hours. And it’s even worse to the south, Fredericksburg got over a foot.

    Also in case you haven’t heard, 95 is closed between Dumfries and Ladysmith. For those not from here, that’s 48 miles of freeway.

    I couldn’t have gone anywhere yesterday anyway–I live on a cul-de-sac and a big pine tree fell over and completely blocked the entrance.

    So for now we’re all just enjoying an extended holiday break and are very happy the power was only out for about five hours yesterday. How are you and yours doing?

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  3. KM says:

    Black ice is a killer. People might think they can drive in snow even if they never have before since “snow is soft, how bad can it be?” It never occurs to them the water on the ground freezes first, making a dangerous invisible sheet of treachery that falling snow then lands on. You’d need a good layer of powder to cover such dangers for the unwary traveler to not slide on….. but then you’d get stuck in the drifts since that much will gum up the wheel wells. Unless it’s been padded down or plowed, powder snow after rain is a *bad* thing to drive in.

    But on the lighter side, even people in famously snowier areas always treat the first snowfall like they’ve never seen the damn stuff before. Behold the Buffalo equivalent to crop circles – the mysterious WTF car in a ditch! (FYI their Twitter feed is hilarious. Someone clued me in and it’s been in my favs for a while now)

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: Yup, I got here in August 2003. We’ve had more snow but this was unusually fast. And, to be fair, more than predicted. On the other hand, this was apparent by 8 am if not earlier. (It took forever to get light yesterday.)

    Senator Tim Kaine is one of those who got stuck. I mean, what the hell could he have possibly needed to drive into DC for yesterday? The Senate had a 17-minute, pro forma, session.

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  5. Kathy says:

    @KM:

    Democrat hoax! It’s just a flurry, a little water. No worse than a drizzle.

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  6. Moosebreath says:

    @Mikey:

    “95 is closed betweenbetween Dumfries and Ladysmith. For those not from here, that’s 48 miles of freeway. ”

    And here I was grumbling about how slow the (generally the same) stretch from Doswell to Stafford was going north on Sunday afternoon, when I was returning home from driving my kid to college, as it took close to 2 hours to go less than 40 miles. No other problems driving through Virginia anywhere else.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Fucking beautiful though, isn’t it?

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  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    “Driving too fast for conditions,” exacerbated by idiots believing they are Paddy Hopkirk because they have an all-wheel-drive vehicle. AWD helps you get moving, but above ~20 mph, it makes no difference.

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  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Moosebreath: There was a notorious day-before-Thanksgiving snowstorm here in Chicago many years ago where everything was bollixed up due to the initial slush (which meant all the tractor-trailers couldn’t get up the on/off-ramps because they had no traction). It took me 5 hours to carry out a trip that usually would take me 2.5 hrs. Tractor-trailers were littering both sides of I-57 like toys a petulant giant toddler had thrown away.

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  10. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:
    “…petulant giant toddler…” You must mean Trump was in the vicinity.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Good Lord. How many people, besides you and me, know of Paddy Hopkirk? I had a “Paddy Hopkirk” throttle pad to facilitate heel-and-toe on my old MG. I need one for my Miata.

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  12. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @KM: Yeah, I got a rude introduction to black ice 18 years ago, when I had much the same attitude. I was saved by running into a snowbank.

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  13. Monala says:

    @KM: in the Seattle metro area, we experienced a very unusual for us, heavy snowstorm followed by a week of freezing temperatures. Most people around here aren’t used to driving in this kind of weather.

    I also discovered a Twitter feed, @angryseattle, who has been documenting all the local car accidents and road closures. There are many!

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  14. Andy says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    “Driving too fast for conditions,” exacerbated by idiots believing they are Paddy Hopkirk because they have an all-wheel-drive vehicle. AWD helps you get moving, but above ~20 mph, it makes no difference.

    We get a lot of that here in Colorado, the land of the Subaru. We have two AWD vehicles, but I get snow tires put on every year and I keep chains in the trunk. People don’t realize that AWD doesn’t help you stop and only does so much when it comes to emergency maneuvering.

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  15. MarkedMan says:

    I learned to drive a standard in Chicago and a stick in Rochester, NY. In neither place was a snowstorm a reason to stay home from work or school. The first time I drove in snow outside the snow belt was in Maryland where I was doing a student co-op block. On my way home from work one day it started to snow, nothing significant. After about ten minutes I was terrified by the other drivers and pulled off into a convenience store parking. I stayed in my car for an hour and a half until all the lunatics were off the road.

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  16. grumpy realist says:

    @Andy: I remember watching an SUV which proudly proclaimed its 4WD status with a sticker on the back whiz up to a traffic light in a snowstorm and right into an accident….

    Neither 4WD nor ABS will save you if you’re going too fast for the conditions of the road.

    (One of the reasons that a sizeable percentage of the patent applications I deal with either are for fully automated vehicles or “how to deal with a dumb driver” situations.)

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  17. Sleeping Dog says:

    @gVOR08:

    I could have inserted any number of old-time rally drivers, but Hopkirk was the first to come to mind. I’m always amazed at the ability of even middling rally drivers to control a car at speed in low traction environs. Then you add in that the road is barely wider than the car and frequently lined with spectators that are at the edge. And if that is not bad enough, they are often going over 100 mph on a road that they have never been on and are relying on the directions of their navigator to tell them what’s around the next blind corner. Paddy was a great one.

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  18. Richard Gardner says:

    Ah, weather, always the worst ever. It looks like you just missed the President’s Day Storm of 2003 in the Mid-Atlantic. I was in Virginia Beach for an evening class and had decided to head home to Alexandria due to the forecast of freezing rain rather than staying overnight. I woke the next morning to a blizzard with over a foot of snow and a paralyzed region.
    Meanwhile this season in the Puget Sound area over 20 ft (248″) of snow has fallen at Snoqualmie Pass (I-90), now open with chains required.

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  19. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Andy:

    When living in Mpls, I had a Land Cruiser. Overnight it has snowed a bit, turned to rain and then the temps dropped to below zero. Skating rink in the morning but enough salt and sand was down to get around if you were careful. As I approached my office the road was blocked due to an accident, I cut through a parking lot and up a parallel street that was an ice sheet. Poking along in 4wd low, I noticed a F250/350 speeding up behind me till it blew past. That street ended at a T. As he reached it, the brake lights came on the truck got a bit sideways and blew through the stop sign across the road and over a 4′ plow pile into a field. The pick-up stayed upright and as I reached the stop sign and make my turn the driver was out of his vehicle. I tooted the horn and waved as I drove off.

    Idiots.

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  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    One weird phenomenon I’ve noticed is that a lot of drivers seem to think that when it’s snowing, traffic lights and stop signs become optional and intersections suddenly become a free-for-all.

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  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Poking along in 4wd low, I noticed a F250/350 speeding up behind me till it blew past. That street ended at a T. As he reached it, the brake lights came on the truck got a bit sideways and blew through the stop sign across the road and over a 4′ plow pile into a field.

    I remember one time I was driving in snow and I was driving up the onramp to a highway at 15-20 mph because it was snowing heavily and this big pickup truck behind me apparently didn’t like that so he blows by me on the shoulder.

    I watched as he gets up to the highway itself and suddenly starts spinning, does a 720 across both lanes, and crashes into the median strip.

    I like to think watching me slowly tool by at 20mph about 30 seconds later added an extra bit of annoyance to his day.

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  22. Moosebreath says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I have had drives like that (including at least 5 where it took over 2 hours for my typical 30 minute commute). But my drive on Sunday was in 60 degree and mostly cloudy but no precipitation weather.

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  23. JohnMcC says:

    I checked very carefully this morning and I can report that in St Petersburg, I could not see my breath. But it’s nice to be reminded. Y’all keep those stories coming.

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  24. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I learned to drive a standard in Chicago and a stick in Rochester, NY.

    Back in the day, which for me is way longer ago than I care to admit, “standard” was “stick”. Now you can hardly buy a stick. Which is OK, as long as they stay off my lawn.

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  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Andy: Actually, some of the most amusing driving prep I’ve ever seen is when Tokyo gets snow: immediately everyone with a car puts on chains to handle what is usually a very wet 3″-5″ which disappears off the roads overnight.

    (It’s also cute watching the waterfowl deal with the stuff. They just wait until it builds up on their back enough, then duck under and wash it off. But boy do palm trees look silly with a load of snow.)

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  26. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR08: My bad. I meant to say automatic. Just a brain fart as a few more cells gave up the ghost…

    FWIW, the car I was driving all those years ago was a Fiat 131 Miafiore, a “sporty” family sedan that was truly an Italian car in both the best and worst senses. I didn’t know how to drive a stick when I bought if from the used car lot, so one of my roommates drove it home and taught me how to drive it. One of the things that made cars back then easier to drive in the snow was relatively narrow tires. I look at the wide-ass tires on so many SUV’s and they give me the willies. I don’t care how macho they look, they distribute so much weight across such a wide area they can’t provide much traction…

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  27. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: There’s a crapload of patent applications dealing with automated ways of avoiding understeering and oversteering. We’re getting to the point where all the muscle intelligence of a good driver is being taken out and stuffed into an AI which will be handling the driving, courtesy of all the zillion sensors that are now starting to cover vehicles. It really now is the case that your average GA airplane is getting much less advanced, technologically, than your average car.

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  28. flat earth luddite says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Ah, yes, here in Luddite-stan (aka Portland OR) I’m very familiar with people who never paid attention in physics class and have to learn practical physics on-site.

    “I’ve got 4WD, I can go ANYWHERE…”

    which is soon followed by

    “Wait, I can’t steer…or stop? I WANT MY MOMMY!!!!!”

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  29. dazedandconfused says:

    @grumpy realist:

    You make that sound like a bad thing. As Boromir would put it: “One does not just idly add gadgetry to an airplane!”

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  30. gVOR08 says:

    @grumpy realist: Yes, you’re getting driver assist whether you want it or not. I’m a sports car guy and a curmudgeon. What I want the car to do is be deterministic. If I do something, I want the car to react the same way every time. Got a new Honda. The “intelligent” cruise control makes me crazy. Does everything except keep the car at a steady speed. GVOR08

    @flat earth luddite: Yup. 4WD helps you start. Does nothing for turning or stopping. The old line was four wheel drive just means you get stuck further out.

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  31. Ken_L says:

    Every year, various places on the Australian coast experience flooding.

    Every year, emergency services bombard us with warnings not to try to drive on flooded roads.

    Every year, numerous idiots in their cars get swept away in flood waters, some of whom drown.

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