Gridlock Guy: I-95 Virginia closure grave reminder for Georgia drivers

Virginians on a huge stretch of I-95 experienced last Monday and Tuesday something similar to what North Georgians did in January of 2014. Snowmageddon. Or Snowpocalypse. The names don’t change the calamitous circumstances.

The topsy-turvy weather rollercoaster we rode in Atlanta around New Year’s is responsible for crazy weather nationwide. Heavy rain changed over quickly to snow and created a disaster on I-95 from just north of Richmond to south of Washington D.C.

D.C. all-news radio station WTOP thoroughly chronicled the ugly snowball effect. Officials said that the rain preceding the snow kept crews from pretreating the roads. Then the snow changed over so quickly and came in such high quantities that the plow crews could not stay ahead of the accumulation.

Does that sound familiar, Atlanta?

Tractor trailers began jackknifing, cars ran off the road or into each other, many others simply got stuck. Then, as hours passed and the jam grew, people started running out of gas as they idled their autos to stay warm. So stalled, stuck vehicles and copious snow and ice made this stretch of I-95 impassable. This meant plows couldn’t get through lanes, nor could responders easily clear vehicles.

WTOP reported that area emergency workers responded to more than a thousand crashes by Tuesday morning. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries or deaths on this epic 48-mile I-95 closure.

Further put into perspective, the length of this I-95 shutdown is similar to closing I-75 from Marietta to McDonough or I-85 from Norcross to Palmetto. As bad as road system in Atlanta was during our infamous ice bash eight years ago, nowhere was any freeway shut down for 50 miles for two days.

But the events were similar. This chilling opening for 2022 in the Mid-Atlantic is a great reminder for us Georgians that we should prepare for emergencies on the roads at any time.

First and foremost, when inclement weather is forecast, driving should be a later resort. Travel is often necessary, but some events are movable and discretionary. Virginia gets snow more often than Georgia does, so they have more crews and preparation that we do. And even they got smacked as hard as we did in 2014. Wonky weather can slay the best laid plans, so our plans as drivers need to center around worst case, not best case scenarios.

Personally, I prefer not to be out in my vehicle during bad thunderstorms, if possible. I certainly don’t want to be out driving if precipitation is falling and has any chance of switching over to freezing. I don’t want to get stuck or hurt.

MARTA normally keeps trains running and can keep the rail lines clear in inclement weather much more easily than crews can keep the roads clear. Where it makes sense, MARTA rail can be a viable alternative for necessary trips and can work for travel when roads are slippery.

But emergencies almost always catch people by surprise. Bad crashes happen out of nowhere and shut down freeways for hours. So, weather aside, the Virginia debacle serves as a great reminder to keep emergency kits in our vehicles.

Founding Gridlock Guy Mark Arum made a thorough list after Snowmageddon 2014 and updated it multiple times. I lean on this annually. Arum includes non-perishable food, blankets, water, winter clothing, an ice scraper, personal hygiene items (especially toilet paper and hand sanitizer), cash, a book or game or puzzle, matches or a lighter in a waterproof container and prescription meds on his emergency list. Phone chargers and first aid items should also be in this vital pack. Arum and I also recommend not venturing out on low fuel, especially when traveling in bad weather. This sounds like overkill, but testimony from Virginia drivers might change that sentiment.

The I-95 closure stranded some drivers for nearly 48 hours. One told WTOP they were en route to Boston to take their father to surgery. Another thought they might miss their father’s funeral. Some had children with them. Virginia Senator and former VP candidate Tim Kaine got stuck for hours trying to get back to Washington. NBC News’ Josh Lederman published an illuminating Twitter play-by-play of his stranded experience, which included melting snow to give his dog water.

Lederman’s narrative breeds great advice: Remember pet passengers and have food and water for them set aside for emergency traffic shutdowns.

The best preparation for any commute is simply checking conditions before leaving on a trip. Although traffic and weather can change quickly, there were inevitably people in Virginia who drove right into that I-95 closure and could have detoured off miles before or even postponed their trips. Atlantans should download my team’s WSB Triple Team Traffic Alerts App and tune in for live updates around the clock on 95.5 WSB and mornings on Channel 2 Action News. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does a good job summarizing weather forecasts and potential traffic problems each day, too, on AJC.com.

Georgia had a taste of winter weather early last week, but there were no terrible traffic catastrophes, thankfully. With the infamous Snowmageddon anniversary on the horizon and Virginia’s disaster top of mind, now is the time to make that emergency kit for the car and get into the mode of rescheduling unnecessary trips when bad weather is in the cards. Before any trip, we need to gear ourselves toward preparedness — both with materials and information.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.