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I-95 Nightmare: Why no National Guard? Why no State of Emergency?

Posted at 12:35 PM, Jan 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-05 08:02:52-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Hundreds of drivers waited desperately for help Tuesday after being stranded all night in freezing temperatures along a 50-mile stretch of highway between Washington D.C. and Richmond that became impassable when tractor-trailers jackknifed in a winter storm, state police said. The disabled trucks triggered a chain reaction Monday as other vehicles lost control and blocked lanes in both directions of Interstate 95.

As hours passed and night fell, motorists posted messages on social media about running out of fuel, food and water. Around daybreak, road crews began helping drivers get off “at any available interchange to get them," the Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam provided an update on those efforts in a Tuesday morning interview with reporters Cameron Thompson and Jake Burns. The reporters asked the governor why the National Guard was not called to help and why no state of emergency had been declared.

The transcript below was lightly edited for clarity and readability:

Cameron Thompson
Now then Governor, can you tell us about how things stand at this hour in terms of a response? How many people are still out there and getting help to them?

Gov. Ralph Northam
It's been a difficult night for a lot of folks, Cam and Jake.

It's really the perfect storm. I mean, we knew that the storm was coming. It started with rain. So it's very difficult to pretreat our highways, and then eight to 12 inches of snow fell very rapidly.

Things were going fairly well until after midnight [Monday morning] and then the deep freeze, as you all know, occurred and really just turned everything that was on the interstate into ice.

We had several accidents, trucks jackknifed, and then it led to these backups and stranded motorists.

And so through the night, we have been working with Virginia State Police, they've answered over 1,000 calls, VDOT individuals are working in 12-hour shifts, we've been working with emergency management.

We have the manpower, the challenge has been getting that manpower to where it needs to be.

And so a lot of people have been stranded, very frustrated, some individuals have needed medicine, we have done everything that we can to deliver that. So we're making progress. But it's been a long and difficult night.

The sun is out now and the temperatures warming up a little bit.

We anticipate getting to these people, whether they need to go to warming stations where they need water, medicine, etc. And then hopefully later today, this afternoon, evening, we'll get interstate 95 opened again.

Jake Burns
Governor, a lot of people are also saying hey, there are still people stuck on the interstate at this hour going on 16-18 hours at this point, having to use the bathroom, in their car out of gas, you mentioned the medical emergencies. Why to this point, not declare a state of emergency, given the fact that this scene is so big?

And a lot of people have been calling for the National Guard to be deployed? Why did you decide not to do that?

Gov. Ralph Northam
A couple of comments. We have the manpower and people have been working through the night, the National Guard is on standby.

That doesn't happen at the snap of a finger. I don't know if anybody remembers the Insurrection. But that happened in the afternoon, we had the National Guard on the ground the following morning. These are civilians that have jobs and need to muster and then be deployed. So again, those are all options that are on the table.

A state of emergency that deals with resources, mainly financial resources, we have those available right now.

So we've got everything that we need. Again, it's just the challenge of getting our resources to where they need to be. And I think, you know, as it warms up, and we can kind of get into these areas that we'll see significant process progress through the day.

Cameron Thompson
Why not have the National Guard deployed or on standby prior to the storm or that state emergency prior to, as you have done in previous storms?

Gov. Ralph Northam

Again, we'll look at this after the fact, Cam and see if there are things that we should have done differently. We always do that in response to these events, but we have the resources right now that we need.

It's just we can't get them.

It's been so challenging. You know, lanes aren't open when there are these log jams. We have trouble delivering the resources to where they need to be.

Cameron Thompson
To that point though, does the National Guard not have resources to address this delivery issue? Like what exactly are the challenges that you're having to overcome to get these resources, you say you have, to the people?

Gov. Ralph Northam
The challenge is access. We have the plows. We have the things we need, Cam. It's just we can't get them where they need to be right now. That's what we're working on.

Jake Burns
I think a lot of people will probably hear this and say, well, you know, I'm still stuck on 95 and I've been there for almost 20 hours now. Given the fact that you are the leader of Virginia and there are hundreds or thousands of people stuck on the interstate here, what's your word to them that it's taken this long to get this point?

Gov. Ralph Northam
Well, it's a very difficult storm. One of the worst storms we've had in decades. Over 400,000 households lost power. Dominion has done a great job restoring power to over a quarter of a million at last I talked to them.

So Mother Nature is a powerful instrument and we knew the storm was coming, we gave warnings, we asked people to stay off our highways. I know a lot of these individuals are coming from other states, trying to get home from the holidays. But when we give these warnings, people need to heed those warnings, because if they don't, and there are traffic jams, and then we can't get our equipment where it needs to be, then these things happen.

Jake Burns
In a way that's putting it on the people, the people that are stuck. Is that what you intend to do? I just want to clarify.

Gov. Ralph Northam
No, not at all. We're doing everything that we can to, to get to these people to keep them safe. But the only point I'm making is right now, people need to stay off these roads. Unless they have no other way to get somewhere. But they need to stay off the road so we can get to the people that need to be rescued and helped and get the interstate open again.

Cameron Thompson
You talked about the timing of all this, you said it was starting to get really bad around midnight, we were getting emails in the 7 p.m. hour [Monday]. When did your office become aware of the situation? And when did you start monitoring or offering assistance to those on the ground?

Ralph Northam
We've been monitoring since the storm started. So that's not the issue. We've had good communication with Virginia State Police, with VDOT, and Emergency Management. It's just once after midnight, once things turn to ice a lot more challenges occurred.

Cameron Thompson
You talk about good communication with the agencies, state police, VDOT, a lot of the people who had been reaching out to us who have been stuck in that say that they had difficulty in terms of finding out any information themselves, whether it be calling 511 or 911 or just getting any sort of information on the ground of what was happening and what resources were being made available to them.

Can you speak about what was being done on that level in terms of actually communicating with the people in their cars? And if there's anything that could have been done better?

Gov. Ralph Northam
We've been reaching out through social media through Twitter. We've been on the radio, we've been on TV networks, we've been doing everything that we can to communicate and get information to the people that needed it.

Jake Burns
Obviously, we're still kind of in the middle of this. But how much was the communication between agencies a challenge here? There has been some conversation about hey, why didn't they shut down the exits, VDOT knew that this crash was going on? Could you talk a little bit about if there was a communication failure here between agencies?

Gov. Ralph Northam
Not at all. We've been communicating through the night. Again, this has been a difficult storm. The perfect storm as I would say that started with rain and eight to 12 inches of snow and then turned into ice and it's presented a lot of challenges.

I'm proud of our agencies. These folks have been working through the night doing everything they can to get to these folks to help them and to get our interstate reopened.

Cameron Thompson
We've heard people reaching out that they're diabetics, they need their medication. Do you have an idea at this point how many people how many cars and have there any been any serious medical emergencies that have happened?

Gov. Ralph Northam
That's a great question, Cam. We've been getting the same reports and trying to get to these individuals as expeditiously as we can. I don't know of any serious problems. But again, we're monitoring that very closely and doing everything we can to get to these individuals as soon as we can.

Cameron Thompson
Do you know how many cars, how long of a backup at this point you're dealing with?

Gov. Ralph Northam
Well, it's about 40 miles of interstate, so I don't know exactly how many cars but a lot of them. A lot of cars and trucks.

Jake Burns
If someone is on the highway right now and they happen to see our live stream here at noon or something like that. What would you want them to do if they do really need help at this moment?

Gov. Ralph Northam
Please continue to reach out to us whether it be through social media or calling our direct numbers and will we get into them as soon as we can. I would also say that you know, if someone has not been able to help them, it's because these people are helping others. They're really doing everything he can to get to them as soon as possible.