Virginia officials defend response to snow-covered gridlock on I-95

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – A winter storm that started as rain – meaning the roads could not be pre-treated – followed by an unusually heavy snowfall and falling temperatures resulted in hundreds of motorists stranded along a stretch of one of the country’s largest interstate highways , Virginia officials said as they defended their response to the gridlock.

There were no reported deaths or injuries as a result of the accident on Interstate 95, but plenty of outrage from motorists, some of whom were stranded overnight Monday through Tuesday, sending prayers for help on social media.

“We all need to be aware that this was an incredibly unusual event,” Governor Ralph Northam said at a news conference, adding that he could understand drivers’ “frustration and fear.”

The problems began Monday morning when a truck tricked on Interstate 95 between Richmond and Washington, triggering a rapid chain reaction as other vehicles lost control, state police said.

They set up during the day as the snow fell at a speed of up to 2 inches per hour, said Marcie Parker, an engineer from the Virginia Department of Transportation who is leading efforts to clear the interstate.

“It was way too much for us to keep up with,” she told reporters. “Therefore, the trucks and cars could not get up and down the hills because we had too much snow and ice out there, with the amount of traffic we had on the interstate road.”

Lanes in both directions were eventually blocked across an approximately 40-mile stretch of I-95 north of Richmond. As the hours went by and the night fell on, motorists posted messages on social media about running out of fuel, food and water.

Prime Inc. truck driver Emily Slaughter said she was driving from New Jersey to Georgia to deliver vegetables to a FedEx facility and was stranded for five hours on the southbound side of I-95. She said everything on the road was fine until she hit Virginia.

“Suddenly you could no longer see lines. It got a little scary there, ”she said.

Slaughter said she soon stopped and she found out about the disabled vehicles on the radio and over social media.

“People said, ‘we’re running out of gas,’ or ‘our kids are hungry,'” she said.

Meera Rao and her husband, Raghavendra, were driving home from visiting their daughter in North Carolina when they were stuck Monday night. They were only 100 feet past an exit but could not move for about 16 hours.

“Not a single police officer (officer) came during the 16 hours we were stuck,” she said. “No one came. It was just shocking. When we were in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to clear one lane so we could all get out of that mess?”

Northam defended its decision not to activate the Virginia National Guard or declare a state of emergency.

He said the problem with state crews was not a shortage of labor, but the difficulty of getting workers and equipment through the snow and ice to where they were supposed to be. And he said a state of emergency, which would typically be declared hours or days before an event to create extra flexibility in responding, would not have done any good.

Up to 11 inches of snow fell in the area during Monday’s snowstorm, according to the National Weather Service, and state police had warned people to avoid driving unless absolutely necessary, especially as colder night temperatures set in.

Because the storm began with rain, crews could not pre-treat the roads because the salt or chemicals would have been washed away, officials said. Some traffic cameras were also knocked out by power outages. And Parker said the position of the roadblocks in relation to the inter-state express lanes meant they were not of much use in removing the queues.

Crews worked all day to clear the roadway, and traffic spilled onto secondary roads, causing further delays.

It took until around 8.30pm on Tuesday Virginia Department of Transportation to reopen interstate. Authorities had earlier in the evening announced that all stranded motorists had gotten off the highway, and road staff then focused on removing the remaining abandoned vehicles and making sure the entire stretch was plowed.

Officials have never given an estimate of the number of vehicles stuck in the queue. Pictures showed they numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands.

The storm also left passengers on an Amtrak train stranded in Virginia. Amtrak’s Crescent left New Orleans on Sunday en route to New York and was stuck near Lynchburg Monday morning when felled trees blocked the tracks.

Passenger Sean Thornton told the AP that Amtrak provided food, but the toilets were overcrowded and passengers were furious. Amtrak planned for the train to end its journey when the tracks are ready.

Kelly Hannon, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, apologized to motorists for the I-95 logjam and said the department would take an “exhaustive look” at the incident.

Marvin Romero, who was driving home from a family vacation in South Florida with his daughters aged 10 and 8, saw a rather optimistic view of the situation, despite spending 20 hours and a long, anxious night in the car.

“To me, I see it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. How many people can actually say they stepped on I-95 or they slept on I-95? He said.” It’s hopefully a story , which I can tell my grandchildren one day. “

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Associated Press writer Matthew Barakat of Falls Church, Virginia; Bryan Gallion in Roseland, New Jersey; Michael Kunzelman of College Park, Maryland; Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia; and Julie Walker of New York contributed to this report.

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