VA Governor: Maybe I should declare a state of emergency for the *next* winter storm

VA Governor: Maybe I should declare a state of emergency for the *next* winter storm
(David Joles/Star Tribune via AP)

As you’ve probably heard, there was a bit of a problem in Virginia a few days ago. A winter storm blew in and the resulting snowfall wound up shutting down a major highway, with motorists being stranded in their cars, many without food or water, for up to twelve hours or more. Some were stuck for close to 24 hours. Considering that it’s January on the east coast, one might imagine that the state government would have been a bit better prepared for such a thing, but apparently not. Governor Ralph Northam, soon to be on his way out the door, initially tried placing the blame on all of the stranded motorists. He faulted them for going out on the roads (on a workday) and expecting the state to keep the roads clear. He upped the ante by informing his constituents that he actually had the National Guard on standby for the storms, but chose not to deploy them because they might make the traffic worse.

It’s stories like these that made me come up with the #HeadDesk hashtag back in the day. But to his credit, Northam seems to have belatedly learned his lesson from this debacle. There’s another storm expected to sweep down the east coast tonight and tomorrow morning, so rather than failing to declare a state of emergency until the roads have already turned into parking lots, he made the declaration two days in advance. (Website of the Governor of Virginia)

Governor Ralph Northam today declared a state of emergency in advance of a winter storm that is predicted to bring snow and other winter weather to many parts of Virginia. This storm, expected to arrive Thursday evening into Friday morning, comes on the heels of a storm Monday that left more than a foot of snow in some parts of the Commonwealth. Many areas still have snow and ice from that storm, and some remain without power because of fallen trees. This will exacerbate the impacts of the coming storm.

I’m not going to fault Northam for issuing this preemptive state of emergency considering how much egg he has on his face from Monday’s disaster. But meteorology is tricky, as anyone working in that field of study can tell you. We’ve gotten pretty good at pinning down weather systems two or even three days in advance, but beyond that, there can always be surprises. A predicted round of lake effect snow that was supposed to hit upstate New York last night totally failed to materialize. There would be some ironic humor involved if tonight’s anticipated storm skipped Virginia entirely after Northam had already sunk all of the resources into deploying the Guard and staging the snow removal crews. (Of course, the motorists will be happier if it passes them by anyway.)

The problem for Virginians, as well as the tattered remains of Northam’s political career, is that the failure to anticipate the problems on Monday will now compound the issues facing commuters on Friday. The power is still out in wide areas along I-95 and there is still plenty of snow to be cleared along the shoulders, with utility vehicles trying to access the trouble spots. Had the National Guard and the utility companies been primed and ready to go on Monday morning, the roads would likely have remained mostly clear and the cleanup and repairs might have been finished by now. But as things stand, if they do get walloped with another serious snow event, these early preparations may still fail to keep the state open.

This is a stunning faceplant for the state government. As Ed pointed out yesterday, before any complicated policy issues or political wrangling, two of the most fundamental responsibilities of government are to keep people safe and to “keep the trains running.” In this case, the “trains” analogy applies across the board to all avenues of transportation, both public and private. On Monday, Northam’s administration failed spectacularly at both. Not only did traffic grind to a halt for a full day during horrible environmental conditions, but motorists’ lives were literally at risk. I’m frankly shocked (and greatly relieved) that we didn’t hear of anyone dying on I-95.

To demonstrate just how bad it can get, I’ll simply remind everyone of the Blizzard of 77 in upstate, NY. With virtually no warning, a snowstorm later described as a “once in 200-year event” blasted the western half of the state for two straight days. In one area to the east of Buffalo, 144 inches of snow fell in 48 hours. Interstate 90 wasn’t just shut down, it was buried. Nearly three dozen people died, with almost a dozen buried in their cars on the Thruway. It took weeks just to find all of the bodies. So count yourself lucky if the next storm in Virginia isn’t anywhere near as bad as that. Here’s a brief slideshow of images from the Blizzard of 77. I lived through it and I can tell you it was a nightmare.

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