Carmageddon II: Behind the Meltdown

I-Team obtained more than 5,000 highway department emails from Jan. 20 snow squall

Just after 9 p.m. Jan. 20, when Jerry Garson tried to drive home from a meeting in Silver Spring, Maryland, he got stuck in the mini-storm before the mega-blizzard.

"To go to the meeting, it took me about 20 minutes,” he said. “To get home, it took me seven hours." 

A quick snow squall brought the D.C. area to its knees with dozens of crashes and thousands of commuters still on the road until the wee hours of the morning.

Garson is the transportation chair for the Montgomery County Civic Federation and one of many who emailed the Maryland State Highway Administration to complain about his experience.

“This one-and-a-half inch snowstorm was probably one of the worst I've seen," he said.

The I-Team found Garson’s email complaint after obtaining more than 5,000 internal emails from all the area's major highway departments sent before, during and after the mini-storm.

The emails show all of the agencies were already gearing up for the record-setting blizzard that would hit Jan. 22 when just before noon Jan. 20, the National Weather Service sent an email warning “to prepare for a half-inch of snow starting in the vicinity of 6-8pm…with cold road temps and traffic - won't take much to cause iciness on untreated roads."

The Virginia Department of Transportation decided to stick with its earlier plan to "mobilize skeleton crews," relying on 122 trucks for all of Northern Virginia.

But by 9 p.m., the emails show, the agency was scrambling and trying to pull in another 200 trucks because crews "were captured in a 10 mile backup" on Interstate 66 and "could not get there to treat black ice."

One VDOT employee called it "a fiasco" while another wrote her colleagues not to "be surprised if I'm in the same clothes tomorrow!" because she never made it home.

“I want to apologize to the thousands of residents that were impacted by that unfortunate event Jan. 20," VDOT Assistant District Administrator of Maintenance Branco Vlacich told the I-Team.

VDOT’s snow mobilization plan allocates a certain number of trucks depending on the severity of the forecast.

"These little ones,” Vlacich said, “are very, very difficult to forecast.”

He explained that in the D.C. area there’s often a forecast for “one to three inches of snow. Well, the difference between one inch and three inches is a thousand vehicles."

He estimates about 40 percent of the storms they respond to never actually materialize.

But for this storm, Vlacich said he actually put more trucks on the road than the plan required because it was too cold to pre-treat the roads. "Anti-icing is basically 23 percent salt, 77 percent water. So we put that down so we have a light coating of salt. But for that to work, the water has to evaporate. So when you get real cold temperatures below 30 degrees, you don't do that because if the water doesn't evaporate, we've created a problem."

In Maryland, the emails the I-Team obtained show the Maryland State Highway Administration put out its plan just before 4 p.m., mobilizing a small number of trucks near the Capital Beltway. 

But the state agency ramped up to at least 147 trucks as employees started to report "crashes everywhere" with "gridlock" on all of the interstates and "vehicles sideways everywhere."

The state's customer service manager called it "a disaster for motorists" in an email to staff, and by 5 a.m., Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn demanded an explanation "about how we got so far behind the curve on this storm." 

In an interview with the I-Team, Maryland State Highways Administrator Greg Johnson said it ultimately boiled down to more snow falling than expected right at the peak of rush hour. "Our trucks get caught in the same traffic backups,” he said. “We're trying to apply salt and brine to the roadway that motorists are sitting on and we cannot get to the areas we need to get to because traffic is sitting on those areas."

Johnson said his crews have already started making changes.

"We look back on that storm and one of the things was to make sure that if a storm is coming in right around rush hour, which is the absolute worst time for anything to happen, let alone a snow and ice storm, is to make sure we stage vehicles more heavily along the Beltway," he said.

For his part, Garson said it’s going to be a long time before motorists like him forget what happened that night. "The State Highway Administration basically gambled this was not going to be a major snowstorm,” he said.

He explained even though the snow has long since melted, it's important to keep up the heat so the highway agencies follow through on their promise to prevent a meltdown like this one from happening again.

Reported by Tisha Thompson, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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