RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Just days after a blizzard left drivers stranded overnight on Interstate 95, Virginia’s state agencies are preparing for more winter weather.
This time around, Governor Ralph Northam has declared a ‘State of Emergency’ and the Virginia National Guard has been deployed in advance. The impending snow comes as officials are still trying to understand exactly what went wrong earlier this week.
In a media call on Thursday morning, Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran explained Northam’s declaration activates the state’s emergency response plan, mutual aid agreements and a centralized operations center. It also gives the state more flexibility to expend funds, activate liability protection, suspend regulations and streamline administrative procedures.
“The need for a declaration now is due to having back-to-back events stretching resources thin statewide, with specific additional impacts along that same Fredericksburg corridor,” Moran said.
Jeff Orrock, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service, said that the upcoming storm will follow a similar track as the one that triggered the I-95 disaster. However, he stressed that this one is expected to be weaker and the timing should be less disruptive, as it should largely happen overnight.
Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner of Highways Stephen Brich said, going into the storm, interstates are in clear condition. He said crews are still working to clear smaller roadways, an effort being complicated by down power lines in some cases.
“This storm was very significant in that we had more than 1 million cubic yards of debris that have been deposited along our roadways,” Brich said. “As a point of reference, last year’s ice storm was between 500 to 700 thousand cubic yards so certainly we are still in clean-up mode.”
Brich said VDOT has been able to restock materials and make equipment repairs since Monday. Brich said the nature of this storm will also allow VDOT to pre-treat roadways, a process that began yesterday. He said extensive rain that preceded the snow last time made it impossible to do this effectively.
“That would’ve washed off all of the salt and materials that we put down,” Brich said. “It would’ve been a waste of money, taxpayer money. It would’ve been a waste of the resources that we have and it would’ve taken additional time to be able to provide a treatment that would’ve rendered itself useless.”
Ahead of the next storm, VDOT is asking drivers to postpone travel as long as possible, keep a safe distance behind vehicles, break lightly and avoid passing plows.
Virginia National Guard Major General Timothy Williams said 50 soldiers and airmen will be spread across the state. He said their primary focus will be debris removal, community assistance and logistical support.
As for the Virginia State Police, Deputy Director of Field Operations Ron Maxey said all available troopers are on patrol to respond to emergencies, crashes and disabled vehicles.
“When necessary we will be extending shifts, calling out additional troopers from areas of the state that might not be as impacted as severely and redirecting resources when and where needed just as we did earlier this week,” Maxey said.
On Tuesday morning, Maxey said they scaled up staff from 18 to 30 officers. Still, he said state troopers struggled to reach some drivers with supplies due to road conditions.
“A lot of our troopers were having to go on foot checking vehicles car-to-car and, again, that’s gonna take a considerable amount of time when you have the limited number of troopers,” Maxey said.
Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine attributed the unprecedented I-95 blockage to “extraordinary circumstances,” citing the rate of snowfall and the number of disabled trucks. She is among those calling for a multi-agency review to prevent something like this from happening again.
“We recognize that there are gaps that we need to address to make sure, regardless of an extraordinary event, how we can deploy resources and help people as effectively as we can,” Valentine said.