On April, 1 2022, The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), and Virginia State Police (VSP) announced the release of a multi-agency after-action report on the Commonwealth’s response to the massive winter storm of January 3 and 4, which caused widespread disturbances to travel, electricity, and emergency response throughout Virginia, but with particular impact and notoriety along portions of the I-95 corridor in the Fredericksburg Region. The report was requested by the above-mentioned agencies and conducted by CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization. A combination of factors leading up to the storm and a cascading series of decisions led to a situation in which a section of the primary interstate corridor of the East Coast was seriously stalled and then closed, with ripple effects in surrounding communities. This was a topic of discussion at the February 3 VACo Board of Directors meeting as the incident affected local governments in the region and the desire to improve coordination with state agency partners to avoid or mitigate future such disasters was encouraged. The after-action-report is an analysis of decision-making and actions by the three agencies, as well as a reconstruction of what happened, why it happened, and what could be done next-time to mitigate the impact of long-term closures.
Regarding the factors that led to the incident, a number of conditions compounded for an unusual weather and transportation event. The weather on the two days preceding the incident featured rain across much of the Commonwealth and near-record high temperatures in some areas. Weather forecasts indicated snow, but actually snowfall in some areas exceeded forecasts by more than 300 percent, reaching as high as 14.6 inches in some locations. Critically, the rainfall precluded pretreatment of the roads with normal mitigation methods and softened the ground to an extent that once heavy and continuous snowfall commenced, many more trees fell onto roadways and downed electric wires than anticipated.
Furthermore, while traffic along the section of I-95 most heavily impacted by the storm is notoriously unpredictable and perhaps one of the worst traffic hotspots in the nation, additional unusual traffic conditions compounded the situation. During the two days prior to the incident, which also happened to be the New Year’s Day holiday weekend, staffing issues related to COVID-19 led to the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights at National Capital Region airports. This influx of holiday travelers seeking road transport led to an increase in travel volume along I-95 in the Fredericksburg Region nearly 65 percent higher than on same days in 2019. This coupled with a general increase of 30 percent in trailer traffic from 2019 and the topography of the region exacerbated the issues caused by the weather.
These conditions led to major backups along I-95, impassability of secondary road systems due to downed trees and electric wires, and difficulty for emergency responders, plows, and wreckers to access the affected areas to alleviate these problems. For a variety of reasons including chain of command factors, electric outages for traffic monitoring cameras, shortages of field staff, and according to the report, a lack of local resource requests, situational awareness by agency leadership of the true extent of the problem developing on I-95 and in surrounding areas was delayed.
Looking forward, the report’s conclusion has several suggestions regarding improving outcomes from this type of incident in the future. This includes: understanding the challenges of new traffic trends and climate patterns; planning for large-scale closures during winter events; getting and maintaining situational awareness; and messaging the public. Of note, existing plans (e.g, VDOT Interstate Detour Plan), that address some of these issues will need to be reviewed. Of interest to local governments, these plans will need to examine the roles, responsibilities, resources, and tactics of both state and local agencies during this sort of emergency. Furthermore, the report notes that such plans will also need to examine a communications plan that coordinates with other agencies (e.g., airport authorities) and states, as well as local governments.
VACo is thankful for the publishing of the after-action report by the three state agencies. Given the report’s conclusions and suggestions to improve outcomes, VACo intends to contact relevant stakeholders to offer our association’s assistance on efforts to improve the emergency response capabilities of the state and local governments throughout the Commonwealth. We will continue to provide updates as they become available.
VACo Contact: Jeremy R. Bennett