Two weeks after a snowstorm led to an approximately 20-mile, 18-hour long traffic backup on Interstate 81 in Southwest Virginia, authorities are reviewing their response efforts.
“We have multiple after-action reviews scheduled,” said Michelle Earl, a spokeswoman with the Bristol office of the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The first meeting regarding the backup occurred on Dec. 11 between VDOT and the Virginia State Police.
“During these meetings we will review timelines, talk about what was going well, what was not, and discuss suggestions for improving in the future,” Earl said.
Following the backup, which stretched from Exit 19 in Abingdon into Tennessee, the Bristol Herald Courier filed a number of requests under the Freedom of Information Act for information, including communications between VDOT officials in Bristol and Richmond.
As snow fell in the region on Dec. 9 and 10, officials at VDOT appear to have communicated about the problem.
“Here in Bristol the snow is slowing down and the sky is beginning to start lightening up, probably still have some wrap around snow bands! Should have I-81 @MP 19 opened here shortly,” District Engineer Randy Hamilton wrote in a text message to VDOT Commissioner Stephen Brich.
Hamilton was providing an update on conditions in Bristol and surrounding areas to the head of VDOT in Richmond, who was monitoring conditions across the state as the storm dumped about a foot of snow.
“The weather update and MP19 opening is good news,” Brich responded. “Once this weather vacates and we are back to normal — would like to know what happened at 19. Watching the cameras.”
VDOT cameras provided a glimpse of the situation on the interstate, which was blocked by traffic as tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles lost control on the slick road.
“Have a call with governor at 5,” Brich wrote in another text. “Looking at cameras — why is NB 81 stopped from Tennessee line north? Residual delay from 19?”
Brich appears to have spoken with Gov. Ralph Northam on the evening of Dec. 9 about the situation in Bristol and Abingdon.
Northam’s press secretary, Ofirah Yheskel, confirmed that the governor’s office was made aware of the situation on 81.
“Will find out,” wrote Moore Garrett, VDOT’s chief engineer in Richmond. “Shouldn’t be that far south.”
Garrett referred to traffic stretching into Tennessee.
“Will have Randy call you with update,” Garrett wrote.
After 5 p.m. Sunday, Garrett wrote, “We have another stalled vehicle @ mm 20 nb. We need to steer traffic clear of here.”
Later in the evening, Hamilton then texted both men, informing them that they could call him.
During the backup, VSP and VDOT worked together to clear the traffic.
In many instances, troopers held traffic back to give VDOT a chance to treat or clear a particularly slick stretch of highway, according to VSP spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
“This was for the safety of the motoring public and to prevent more vehicles from becoming stuck and causing even longer delays,” she said.
Earl has noted that the interstate is plowed by contractors.
“It was legislatively mandated that contractors would clear interstate highways in Virginia,” she said.
C.L. Fencing, of Lebanon, Virginia, is the primary contractor that works on I-81 from the Virginia/Tennessee state line to mile marker 26, Earl said.
Between the state line and Exit 26 at Emory, there were 19 snow plows and three monitors/supervisors working during the snowstorm. Interstate plow trucks were staging ahead of the queue to ensure when the trucks began moving, they had the interstate clear ahead.
Interstate plow trucks were also making loops between the Virginia/Tennessee state line to the backup, clearing southbound lanes, and clearing ramps where trucks were not blocking ramps, Earl said.
VDOT’s Safety Service Patrol was also used during the backup. There was originally one patrol, which provides assistance to stranded drivers, then two patrols were added in the afternoon, according to Earl.
Later in the evening on Dec. 9, the city of Bristol became involved. Fire Chief Mike Armstrong, who coordinates emergency management efforts in the city, said people in the traffic jam had been calling 911 for help and posting on social media.
The fire chief, police chief and city manager met to discuss what the city could do to help drivers. They ultimately used ATVs and went out on foot to assist drivers and direct them off the interstate to U.S. Highway 11.
At one point, Armstrong said the city considered opening a shelter along the interstate to help the drivers, who had been stuck for hours. But they decided against it because it would have resulted in abandoned vehicles on the highway, which would have continued the backup.
Due to the “crisis,” the city also requested assistance from the Virginia National Guard. The state organization, which is dispatched through requests to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, was unable to come to Bristol and state officials said their efforts would have been ineffective.
“The severe weather conditions in Bristol created tremendous challenges for everyone in Virginia’s emergency response community, and we understand there were gaps in communication,” said A.A. “Cotton” Puryear, a public affairs officer with the Virginia National Guard. “The Virginia National Guard is now focused on analyzing the lessons learned and looking at what we need to do in the future to make sure our capabilities are clearly conveyed.”
Armstrong noted that he attended a meeting with emergency management officials in Abingdon last week to discuss the problems and hopefully prevent a similar traffic scenario from happening again.