Ice and snow stranded hundreds of drivers on Interstate 95 in Virginia into Tuesday after a winter storm pounded several Eastern states and dumped more than a foot of snow in some places.
The storm brought havoc to roadways, left more than 300,000 without power in Virginia and Maryland and caused at least five deaths across three states.
No injuries or fatalities from the storm or the traffic backup were reported in Virginia, but state officials were facing a slew of questions about how the situation was allowed to escalate, with many motorists furious that they were left out in the cold with no way to get off the road. Many also complained that emergency officials did not recognize the seriousness of the situation and provide food and water to stranded people in freezing temperatures.
Josh Lederman, a reporter with NBC News, tweeted that he was stuck in his car overnight and many motorists turned off their cars to conserve gas.
“People (myself included) are taking exercise breaks outside their cars, walking their dogs on the interstate. I’ve been putting snow in his bowl and letting it melt into water,” he tweeted, detailing the ordeal.
The Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted Tuesday evening that the traffic had been cleared and there were no remaining stranded motorists.
Problems began Monday morning when a truck jackknifed on Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the East Coast, triggering a swift chain reaction as other vehicles lost control, state police said.
On a roughly 50-mile stretch of I-95 near Fredericksburg, drivers were stuck in their cars overnight while ice blanketed the freeway. The Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted Tuesday that the stretch of the interstate remained closed.
At a midday news conference, officials didn’t say how many miles of backup remained or how many cars were still stuck.
Transportation Department engineer Marcie Parker said the agency expected to finish clearing the interstate so it would be open for the Wednesday morning rush hour.
On social media, people shared their experiences about running out of fuel, food and water as they sat for hours without moving. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Tuesday morning he remained in the standstill for 19 hours on his way to Washington. Others said drivers got out of their cars and were worried about food.
Sen. Kaine finally arrived in Washington Tuesday afternoon, some 27 hours after his journey began.
Meera Rao and her husband, Raghavendra, were driving home from visiting their daughter in North Carolina when they got stuck Monday evening. They were only 100 feet past an exit but could not move for roughly 16 hours.
“Not one police (officer) came in the 16 hours we were stuck,” she said. “No one came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to even clear one lane for all of us to get out of that mess?”
On Tuesday, state leaders were getting pelted with questions about why the Virginia National Guard was not called in to assist with rescue operations.
The answer being given? No one requested them.
“The Guard has to be activated for them to respond,” Lauren Opett, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said in a telephone news conference with reporters Tuesday afternoon. She said there was doubt that there would be enough time for all of that to happen.
Opett said it takes roughly 12-24 hours for Guard personnel to be activated and deployed.
Downed trees and black ice remained major issues for much of the state Tuesday , said Corinne Geller, a spokesperson for the state police.
“We know many travelers have been stuck on Interstate 95 in our region for extraordinary periods of time over the past 24 hours, in some cases since Monday morning. This is unprecedented, and we continue to steadily move stopped trucks to make progress toward restoring lanes,” Parker said in a statement.
State police responded to more than 1,000 traffic crashes and assisted more than 1,000 motorists, Alena Yarmosky, spokesperson for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, said in a statement.
“While sunlight is expected to help VDOT treat and clear roads, all Virginians must continue to avoid the interstate and follow directions of emergency personnel,” she said.
Kelly Hannon, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, apologized to motorists and said the department would take an “exhaustive look” at the incident.
Winter weather is playing havoc not only with road travel but also passenger trains in Virginia and other states.
Amtrak’s Crescent, which left New Orleans on Sunday on its way to New York, got stuck near Lynchburg on Monday morning, returned to the Virginia city and remained there Tuesday. Officials said downed trees blocked the tracks.
Tuesday, passengers aboard the train said they were without food, functioning toilets and information from the railroad as to what would happen next.
The winter storm blanketed parts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Schools across multiple states remained closed Tuesday, and about 234,000 customers in Virginia and 22,000 in Maryland were without power as of 1 p.m., according to the online tracker Poweroutage.us.
Snowfall totals in the Washington area were half a foot to a foot, according to the National Weather Service.
More than 15 inches of snow fell in Huntingtown, Maryland, the highest total in the state, about 40 miles southeast of Washington. Glendie, north of Fredericksburg, recorded more than 14 inches of snow, the highest total in Virginia, according to the Weather Service.
Five deaths due to the weather were reported. A 7-year-old girl died after heavy snow led to a tree falling on a home in Townsend, Tennessee, about 30 miles southeast of Knoxville, WVLT reported.
A second child, a 5-year-old boy in Georgia, was killed after heavy rain and strong wind gusts caused a tree to fall on a home near Atlanta in DeKalb County, according to CBS 46.
Three more people died when an SUV and snowplow collided in Montgomery County, Maryland, NBC reported.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a snow emergency Monday and advised residents to stay home. President Joe Biden, who was returning to the White House from Delaware, had his helicopter grounded by snow and traveled by motorcade from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
Contributing: Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; Bill Atkinson, The Progress-Index; The Associated Press
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