RICHMOND, Va. -- When Randy Anderson and his wife Debra made plans to head home to Mechanicsville from New England via Interstate 95 last week, they knew there was snow in the forecast. Based on the forecast, they delayed their departure from New Hampshire to arrive in Virginia Monday afternoon.
"We were definitely giving thought to our trip," Anderson said. "It wasn't just let's hit the road and have fun in the snowstorm."
The couple hit the D.C. Beltway at about 4 p.m., about two hours after the last of the winter weather fell in Virginia. With clear skies above and no indication of any problems ahead, the Andersons got onto Interstate 95 to complete the final two hours of what should have been a 10-hour drive. It took 40.
"We were making some progress near the Dale City exit. Everything seemed to be fine, it was just slow until it wasn't fine," Anderson said.
Monday's blizzard led to extreme gridlock when unusually heavy snowfall combined with plunging temperatures. A rainy start to the winter weather kept the Virginia Department of Transportation from pretreating the roads.
Problems began Monday morning, when a truck jackknifed on Interstate 95 between Richmond and Washington. That triggered a chain reaction as other vehicles lost control, state police said.
Lanes in both directions eventually became blocked along an approximately 40-mile stretch of I-95 between Richmond and Washington, D.C. As hours passed and night fell, motorists posted messages on social media about running out of fuel, food, and water.
Anderson said it was at about 9 p.m. when they realized this was going to be serious. But it was not until 9 a.m. the next morning that he said he received a public safety message on his phone that informed him that help was on the way in the form of supplies and tow trucks.
"That was probably a good 12 hours after the situation developed," he said. "I think action could have been taken quicker to help people."
"There were definitely people in a dire situation, running out of fuel. A couple of medical situations behind us," he said.
Even as traffic began to move on Interstate 95, the traffic re-routed onto Route 1 became a problem.
"Took me two and a half hours to get on Route 1," Anderson said. "We were stuck on Route 1 at a standstill until about 10 p.m. Tuesday. I was about to run out of gas."
Anderson finally made it home and said he was in bed 1 a.m. on Wednesday.
"It was over 40 hours on the road," he said. "I'm not sure how I did it."
Now Anderson and many other drivers stranded on Interstate 95 that day have questions and concerns about the way the situation was handled by the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Virginia State Police, and the Governor of Virginia.
"The perception is certainly, 'Hey we really didn't care about this until it was a national news story,'" Anderson said.
The perception was not reality, according to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
"We're doing everything that we can to, to get to these people to keep them safe," Northam told the CBS 6 Problem Solvers on Tuesday, hours after the winter storm ended but as hundreds of drivers remained stranded on I-95. "We've got everything that we need. Again, it's just the challenge of getting our resources to where they need to be."
During an interview Thursday with WRVA radio, the governor's frustration with the situation appeared to bubble over.
"I am getting sick and tired of people talking about what went wrong," Northam said to WRVA Matt Demlein. "We knew this storm was coming. We put warnings out. Why don't you start asking some of these individuals that were out on the highway for hours: One, did you know about the Storm? Two, why did you feel it was so important to drive through such a snowstorm?"
That response led some to question the governor's ability to lead.
"This is what he is paid to do. This is his job to handle matters of public safety in Virginia," University of Mary Washington political science professor Dr. Stephen Farnsworth said. "I guess it's a good thing his term ends in a few days if this is the kind of things he can't stomach. Maybe he shouldn't be in the picture."
"Poor leadership deflects, blames, and looks for ways to shift responsibility rather than to say hey we should have reacted sooner," Anderson said.
Drivers are not the only people upset over the way Virginia reacted to the crisis on I-95.
Both U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D - Virginia) and State Senator Bryce Reeves (R - Spotsylvania) have pressed for answers.
"Quite frankly it was a total failure on the part of the people that were supposed to protect us," Reeves said.
"I'd like to get data on what kind of personnel were deployed," Warner added. "Why wasn't there an earlier notification on a regular basis? That is why we have all these alert systems."
Reeves said he could not understand why the governor did not active the Virginia National Guard to help. Reeves shared a text he sent to Governor Northam on Tuesday morning begging him to declare a state of emergency or allow him to call the local guard unit.
"They could have helped people get off the road. They could have provided warmth, food, those kinds of things. Those humvees and the vehicles they have, I know at our armory could certainly have gone out on 95 since we were the most impacted there," Reeves said.
During a Tuesday morning press conference, with drivers still stranded on the interstate, CBS 6 Problem Solver Melissa Hipolit asked the Virginia Department of Emergency Management why the National Guard was not activated.
"Our trigger for requesting the national guard is if we start seeing requests come in seeking assistance and support," the VDEM spokesperson responded. "As of this morning [Tuesday, January 4, 2022] we had not received any requests from our localities or our state agencies which is our trigger to put those in motion so therefore that 12-24 hour timeline would still have been tricky."
Governor Northam echoed that response when posed a similar question.
"That doesn't happen at the snap of a finger," he said. "These are civilians that have jobs and need to muster and then be deployed."
While the decision to deploy the guard was still under consideration in Richmond, Anderson remained stranded on 95 asking himself questions.
Why didn't the state close ramps to prevent more drivers from entering the backup?
Could the Northan Virginia express lanes have been used to move cars or check on stranded drivers?
"Not one time Monday night up until mid-morning Tuesday did anybody stop to check on the people stuck in the line," Anderson said. "That was problematic and certainly concerning. I thought that was odd, but the express lanes were good to go."
When asked why drivers were not alerted earlier to the I-95 traffic backups, a spokesperson for VDOT said the agency was still working on its response.
In the meantime, VDOT and other state agencies are working on an after-action review to address performance gaps.
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