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Amid criticism, Virginia officials say fast-falling snow hindered storm prep

“This was a perfect storm,” Gov. Ralph Northam said. “We were prepared for a few inches of snow but got a foot. I certainly understand the frustration.”
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Virginia transportation officials said Tuesday that they believed they were prepared for the winter storm that stranded drivers along 50 miles of Interstate 95 but that they were quickly overwhelmed by its magnitude as more snow than anticipated fell and faster.

Thousands of motorists — some of them children and elderly travelers — went without food and water Monday night and were stuck in cold and inclement weather after a crash involving multiple tractor trailers brought the roadway to a standstill. No injuries were known, officials said Tuesday.

The first mid-Atlantic storm of the year dumped more than a foot of snow on the region.

Some drivers who were left stranded said the state should have shut down the highway or otherwise intervened before road conditions deteriorated.

“I am feeling frustrated more than anything,” said Sean Brocato, 35, who was stuck until Tuesday afternoon as he was trying to drive south to Raleigh, North Carolina.

“The problem with the entire situation is that the Virginia Department of Transportation did nothing to keep drivers informed. Was VDOT unaware of the snowstorm? Did they not realize the road conditions?” Brocato said.

Gov. Ralph Northam said on a conference call Tuesday afternoon that officials urged drivers to stay off the highway in the days before the storm but that some, especially those passing through the state, missed the message.

“This was a perfect storm,” Northam said. “We were prepared for a few inches of snow but got a foot. I certainly understand the frustration.”

Image: Interstate 95 weather
Drivers stand near their vehicles as they look down Interstate 95 in Carmel Church, Va., on Tuesday.Steve Helber / AP

As of Tuesday morning, Virginia State Police had responded to more than 2,000 traffic crashes and disabled vehicles statewide, state transportation officials said.

Despite a 20-mile traffic backup on the south part of the interstate, transportation officials said they expect it to be clear for Wednesday morning's rush hour commute.

“We really understand that people face a very stressful, scary situation. And we do apologize. We will be taking an exhaustive look at this incident. We want to provide assistance to everyone who was stopped,” Kelly Hannon, the communications manager for VDOT’s Fredericksburg District, said on a separate conference call Tuesday.

Crews mobilized late Sunday and worked 12-hour shifts to prepare for the storm, VDOT Fredericksburg engineer Marcie Parker said on the call.

Crews did not treat the roads before the storm because it began as rain, which would have washed any anti-icing treatment away, Parker said.

Asked why VDOT didn’t close the interstate once it became apparent that there was a problem, Hannon said: “We do have a number of incidents on I-95 throughout the year. I think when we went into it, we had resources, we had our emergency response team, but we do have a lot of big, complicated incidents.”

Officials said that snow becomes difficult to manage once it falls at more than an inch per hour, that crews also battled downed trees and power outages and that they discouraged people from traveling.

Marvin Romero, 34, was driving his two daughters from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, back to Brooklyn, New York, before traffic stalled heading north. 

“I was upset at first and trying to call VDOT to tell them what was going on. They weren’t ready or prepared,” said Romero, who made it home Tuesday. “But as time went on, I calmed down and de-escalated myself. I took the situation for what it was. How many people can say they slept on I-95 for a night in Virginia? We ate peanuts in the car.”

Officials said Tuesday that the majority of drivers were being diverted onto different highways and exit points.

State transportation crews have been providing fuel, water and blankets to as many motorists as possible and towing abandoned vehicles, many of which were left after they ran out of fuel.