RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — An independent review of the commonwealth’s storm preparedness and response involving a snowstorm in early January that left hundreds of drivers stranded on I-95, some stuck in the cold for more than 24 hours, was released Friday evening.

The I-95 incident After-Action Report was done by a third party, the CNA Institute for Public Research. It laid out a reconstruction of events the day/s of and leading up to the shutdown, including weather conditions and actions taken by The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Virginia State Police (VSP) ahead of and in response to the weather-induced catastrophe.

According to the timeline of the report, I-95 North at mile marker 133 and I-95 South at Exit 126 in Virginia were brought to a complete shutdown by 5:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 3, and were not able to be reopened by state officials until 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 4.

Even though the highway reportedly came to a complete standstill by 5:30 p.m. Monday, according to the independent review, VDOT officials did not formally close access to the stretch of I-95 that was impacted –backed up for over 40 miles between mm 104 and 152 northbound and mm 152 and 136 southbound– until over 12 hours later, at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

In previous reporting by 8News, harrowing 911 calls from panicked drivers on Interstate 95 revealed that callers were reporting that they were stranded 22 hours before VDOT announced it was shutting down the section of highway.

“Ultimately, the VDOT Customer Service Center fielded over 20,000 calls on January 3 and 4, a five-fold increase from the previous week,” the report stated.

8News previously reported listening through a handful of the 2100 emergency calls the Stafford County Sheriff’s office received over the two-day storm period, and among the first callers on the morning of Monday, Jan. 3 was a motorist who dialed 911 in Stafford at 7:27 a.m.

The first caller identified so far contacted 911 at 7:27 am – nearly a full 24 hours before the interstate was finally shut down to travelers by VDOT. (Warning: loud and sudden beeps have been used to remove identifying information from these calls)

“Apparently there’s like a semi stuck at the top of a hill and it’s backing traffic up onto 95 and people are starting to get out of their cars,” they told dispatchers.

That call was forwarded to Virginia State Police.

During the storm on Jan. 3, VSP responded to calls for at least 67 crashes and 159 disabled vehicles across the Commonwealth. According to the report, a loss of power knocked out a VSP communications system for about four hours Monday morning and power was not fully restored until 2:30 p.m.

The complete shutdown is attributed to a collection of traffic incidents involving disabled tractor-trailers and car crashes along the stretch of highway through the Fredericksburg area.

Illustration of some major incidents that occurred around the Fredericksburg area with corresponding mile markers to demonstrate the severity and frequency of the incidents.

A Bill was introduced by Senator David Marsden, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, after the Jan. 3 and 4 catastrophe. If passed, Marsden said his bill would require trucks to stay in the right lane when it snows, forcing them to slow down and hopefully preventing blockages that can be caused by lane changes.

“If it’s snowing, it applies,” Marsden said when asked what would trigger the rule. “Just like there is a requirement in Virginia that, if it’s raining, you have to have your windshield wipers on.” 

Marsden said police could enforce the rule like any other traffic ticket- with a fine of about $100 per violation.

Why didn’t VDOT close the highway sooner?

The figure included in CNA’s report shows I-95 traffic well below average highway speed starting as early as 7:15 a.m. Monday, Jan. 3

“With the information available prior to and during the day, VDOT and VSP did not consider closing this part of I-95 a realistic solution, because there were no viable alternate routes available,” the report stated.

“The primary and secondary roads that surround I-95 (such as I-64 and Routes US 1, US 3, US 301, and US 17) were all unpassable or barely passable at different times of the day due to car accidents, downed wires and trees, and snow-covered roads.”

VDOT and VSP’s primary mission, until late Monday evening, was to keep I-95 traffic moving– no matter how slowly. The report theorized that closing the interstate around Fredericksburg earlier on Monday “would have given snowplowing personnel and equipment access to the roadways and improved the snow removal process.”

The report stated that VDOT and VSP did not consider enacting an extensive closure during the day because travelers could still drive through one or more lanes at very slow speeds in small, open segments between the bottlenecking traffic patterns.

Alternate routes may have been taken into consideration, but were not acted upon. The detours for alternate routes would have needed to be southbound at Washington, D.C. and northbound at Richmond. There were also hundreds of trees down on I-64 between 8:20 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Monday, Jan. 3, leaving one minimally passable lane between mm 124 and mm 147.

The widespread interstate closure was deemed by the report to be a “resource-intensive operation.”

Why didn’t state agency leadership understand how bad the I-95 conditions were getting?

The review found that state agencies “collectively lost situational awareness and could not verify the extent and locations of the blockages on I-95” as cars drove into what became a 40-mile long standstill for upwards of 24 hours. It cited power outages, poor road conditions, staffing shortages and unaligned regional boundaries as a few of the reasons officials were not able to maintain awareness of the increasingly extreme situation.

A graphic included in the report shows the challenges state agencies had in becoming aware of the I-95 situation
Dramatic increases in both Virginia 5-1-1 app installations and website users

VDOT claimed to have been sending out weather alerts leading up to the incident, but when the public needed it, real-time traffic information provided by VDOT 5-1-1 went silent. The system ceased updating for four crucial hours between 7:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Monday.

The report went on to say that VDOT, VSP, and VDEM were collecting information that could have helped them to understand the length of the interstate backup and the severity of the road conditions by using 911 calls, social media, VDOT’s Customer Service center and VDEMS Situational Assessment Unit. However, there was no set guidance forward to validate and take action on these “non-traditional data sources.”

As no such plan was quickly available, the report said that information was not conveyed to agency leadership in real-time.

Why didn’t VDOT open the I-95 express lanes to

The report concluded that as conditions deteriorated, VDOT and VSP saw limited options for emergency travel. The state agencies decided to keep express lanes closed for “contingency planning options as they prepared for and responded to medical and other emergencies on I-95.”

Why didn’t anyone tell drivers not to travel on I-95 or report how bad the traffic was?

The report found that while state agencies did send out information to the public warning of the incoming winter weather ahead of the storm, clear information and explicit directions were sorely lacking in messages sent out during the time of the interstate crisis.

Example of communication from Virginia State Police Jan. 3

In Conclusion

The report gave Virginia officials several suggestions to improve outcomes from this type of incident in the future:

  • Virginia should analyze the increased tractor-trailer traffic on interstates and the impacts of these changing patterns on traffic flow, and update staffing and mobilization plans accordingly
  • Existing interstate closure plans between VDOT and VSP that address specific incidents and hazards will need to be reviewed, expanded and integrated across hazards and agencies for interagency coordination.
  • State agencies should consider developing additional sources to gain information during an emergency in order to build situational awareness. Crowdsourcing information through Twitter and other forms of social media can provide supporting documentation of conditions when traditional technology goes down.
  • State officials should become more proactive with direct messaging to the public. The report suggested crisis communication training would help state officials to craft messages that provide clear direction and reassurance, with empathy, that encourage the public to act in a way that is helpful to the situation.

The report also suggested that the public has a responsibility to stay informed on road conditions and traffic during winter weather situations, and should make an informed decision on that information. It suggested the public be prepared for any circumstance if an attempt to drive is made during winter weather.

The report was made by the CNA, “a not-for-profit research organization that serves the public interest by providing in-depth analysis and result-oriented solutions to help government leaders choose the best course of action in setting policy and managing operations.”

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin responded to the incident report saying,

“This report demonstrates as the storm changed in intensity and left Virginians and travelers stranded on I-95, the previous administration’s leadership did not properly prepare or communicate. Since assuming office on January 15th, our administration has worked very closely with Virginia State Police, our Virginia National Guard, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, and the Virginia Department of Transportation responding quickly and adequately to each incoming weather related event and I’ve been incredibly pleased with our execution. We have weathered three big snowstorms successfully. Our focus is on preparation, communication and execution. Virginians can trust that we are working to keep them safe.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin