Inside Nova: Congresswoman seeks answers on next steps following IG report on January snowstorm

INSIDE NOVA, ABIGAIL CONSTANTINO/WTOP NEWS

A Virginia congresswoman wants to know what steps are being taken to prevent future snow-related traffic backups such as the one that snarled traffic and stranded motorists on Interstate 95 last January.

In a letter to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who represents the area of Fredericksburg that was part of the miles long traffic jam, asked what he is doing to ensure that the state’s transportation department will put in place the recommendations outlined in the after-action report on the Jan. 3 snowstorm, as well as the recommendations from the report on the 2018 storm that shut down parts of Interstate 81.

Spanberger acknowledged that Youngkin was not yet in office when these storms happened, but she said that it now falls to his administration to make sure that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) and other agencies implement the recommendations of the report.

The Youngkin camp blamed former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration for failing to “adequately prepare and plan for the I-95 snow debacle.”

A Youngkin spokesperson described the subject of the Office of the State Inspector General’s performance audit “the January 3-4, 2022 Northam Administration snow incident.” The audit’s title is the “2022 I-95 Snow Incident of January 3-4 Performance Audit.”

“Governor Youngkin and the administration successfully weathered three snow-related events, mitigated risks, and ensured appropriate resources were available for our response teams and they performed well. … Under the Governor’s leadership, snow events following his inauguration were managed to the standard of preparing for worst-case scenarios as opposed to under-preparing for snow emergency events,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Other questions Spanberger seeks answers to include why the recommendations for the 2018 after-action report weren’t implemented, accountability processes to ensure lessons are implemented, steps being taken to develop a “hazard-specific” emergency plan for snowfall, and lastly, steps that have been taken to address communication failures identified in the inspector general’s report.

The 29-page audit by IG Michael Westfall included nine critical findings.

VDOT didn’t apply lessons learned from a similar snow-caused gridlock in 2018 on Interstate 81 near Bristol.

Virginia doesn’t have a specific emergency plan in place for dealing with snow events.
Messages sent to the public warning motorists to avoid entering I-95 were unclear and unreliable.
Interagency communication at VDOT was not effective.

There weren’t sufficient resources in place at VDOT area headquarters to handle the snow removal.
There was no primary effort to assist stranded motorists, many of whom had to abandon their vehicles in the freezing cold, as VDOT and Virginia State Police (VSP) were primarily focused on their responsibilities to open the highway.

Despite the deteriorating situation, VDOT Fredericksburg management didn’t alert executive management quickly enough and the absence of a Joint Information Center early in the storm contributed to poor communication between VDOT, VSP and Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).

There was no backup power for traffic cameras along the affected section of I-95. Most of the traffic cameras were not operational during the storm, making it difficult for officials to assess the scope of the disaster.

While January storm’s intensity was unexpected, and therefore didn’t rise to the level of issuing an emergency declaration, the IG recommends that in the future, a Declaration of Preparedness should be issued to allow for more resource staging, including the National Guard being called up to help.
In April, a 41-page after action report requested by VDOT, VDEM and VSP was published detailing the state’s response to the storm and what should be done in the future.

Last June, a report on the findings of another audit on VDOT’s snow removal process — which did not cover the Jan. 3 and Jan. 4 snow event — found that the agency does not have sufficient contractors to assist in heavy snow removal.

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