The Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) recently released a performance audit of the 2022 I-95 Snow Incident of January 3-4 in August 2022. This report comes on the heels of the Virginia Interagency Report conducted by CNA and another OSIG report auditing snow removal by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). The first objective of the current performance audit was to review the actions taken by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), and the Virginia State Police (VSP) to determine whether corrective actions following similar winter weather events were implemented. The second objective of the current audit was to determine the root cause of each issue addressed in the combined agencies’ After-Action Report on the I-95 Snow Incident of January 3-4. VACo staff has previously written about combined agencies report and issues affecting snow removal which can be accessed here and here respectively.
The OSIG report contains nine main findings revealed by the audit and makes recommendations on how to proceed to prevent future incidents from occurring during winter weather events in the future. The report finishes with an appendix comprised of a VDOT, DEM and VSP Corrective Action Plan. The first three findings serve as the Audit’s highlights and include:
- “VDOT did not apply lessons learned from the 2018 I-81 snow incident.”
- In response to the 2018 I-81 Snow Incident near Bristol, an after-action report was created for that event, similarly to the 2022 event. The 2018 After Action Report identified several lessons learned and even the VDOT Chief Engineer issued a memo on these findings and how to best move forward to prevent this in the future. The current OSIG audit states that many of the lessons previously learned were not deployed during the January 3-4 incident of this year. This leads the OSIG to recommend applying what is learned from prior events and ensure they are applied to future events even if they occur is separate districts.
- “[The] Commonwealth has no hazard specific plan for snowfall.”
- The report specifies that VDEM has a general emergency plan for natural disasters but nothing specific in response to a snow event the magnitude of the January 3-4 incident. The OSIG recommends VDEM, VDOT and VSP research and develop a hazard specific emergency plan that best fits the Commonwealth’s needs for a response to a disaster level snow event.
- “Commonwealth did not communicate effectively to the public.”
- When it comes to crisis communications the message to the public needs to be clear and authoritative about what actions to take and the Audit reports that the various departments’ messaging was not effective as traffic continued to pile up, exacerbating the issue at hand. The OSIG recommends improving upon messaging in emergency situations like this by defining who is in charge of messaging in a multiregional or multi-agency event.
The other findings contained in the report are as follows:
- VDOT Intra-Agency Communications Were Not Effective
- VDOT Fredericksburg Was Not Able to Contract Sufficient Resources
- Responsibilities for Stranded MotoristRegarding this finding, the Code of Virginia provides for VDEM to be responsible for emergency management activities during an emergency. During the January 3-4 I-95 Incident, VDOT and VSP were primarily focused on their responsibilities to re-open the road. This made way for no primary effort to be placed assisting stranded motorists even as VDOT and VDEM notified local governments. One of the recommendation the OSIG makes is that a legal opinion is sought to determine what agency or level of government is primarily responsible for assisting stranded motorists. This could potentially lead to the Office of the Attroney General recommending that additional local resources be dedicated to this task in future emergencies.
- Maintaining Situational Awareness in Disaster Level Snow Storm Situations
- Contingency Planning for Losing Power to traffic Cameras
- Declaration of Preparedness (creating an alternate to a Gubernatorial Emergency Declaration)
The 2022 I-95 Snow Incident of January 3-4, 2022, was an atypical snowfall event that developed from many contributing factors. With spring like temperatures leading up to the snowfall, New Year’s Holiday traffic, a quick drop in temperature on an already wet road surface subsequently impacted with heavy and wet snowfall, high wind and power outages that were unexpected, outlines a recipe for disaster. VDEM, VDOT and VSP management generally concurred with the findings and plan to implement corrective actions. VACo is thankful for the publishing of the Performance Audit by the Office of the Inspector General and has notified the relevant state agencies of the Associations willingness to coordinate on improvement efforts to improve resilience. VACo staff will continue to provide updates as they become available. The full OSIG Report can be accessed here.