Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 25, 2013

Highways, emergency personnel re-evaluate response to storms

By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — Highway and emergency service personnel on both sides of  the West Virginia/Virginia state line started re-evaluating communications among themselves after a major snow storm Jan. 17 snarled traffic and closed highways in both states.

Highways were closed as the storm dumped heavy, wet snow that made travel dangerous. The decision to close certain stretches of an interstate highway is often made at local levels, highway department representatives in both Virginia and West Virginia said.

“Many times, the state police will make the determination and VDOT will follow their recommendation,” said Michelle Earl, a spokesperson for VDOT. “We work in conjunction with the state police and other emergency agencies.”

VDOT would be responsible for implementing the closure if the Virginia State Police decided that a highway had to be shut down, Earl said.

In West Virginia, the decision whether to close a highway is dependent on the agencies involved and the situation, said Brent Walker, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

“If there is a fire or some hazardous material, a fire chief could shut down a road,” Walker said.

In situations such as the Jan. 17 snowstorm, the decision is part of a wider discussion including people such as the secretary of transpiration, emergency service personnel and the superintendent of the state police, Walker said.

Problems with communications during the Jan. 17 snowstorm led to confusion when sections of Interstate 77 south of the East River Mountain Tunnel were closed. Troopers with the West Virginia and Virginia state police had to share information to determine what had been closed.

“They lost their interstates on the other side of the tunnel,” said General Manager Greg Barr of the West Virginia Turnpike Authority. “I guess the storm hit even harder down there. We got word that they would be permanently closed through the night at 11:30 p.m. and would be closed until 9:30 (a.m.) We kept trying to reach the numbers for emergencies for Virginia and we couldn’t get through.”

The turnpike authority later contacted Jimmy Gianato with Homeland Security in West Virginia, and he contacted his counterpart in Virginia, Barr said.

“Their homeland security department said they might get something open by midnight or it might be several hours,” Barr recalled. “There was no certainty when it might open.”

The day after the storm, the turnpike’s director of operations talked with highway officials in Virginia and compiled a list of all active phone numbers and shared them with the West Virginia Department the Transportation, Barr said. The goal was to get phone numbers that would reach Virginia officials at any time and not just office hours.

“It seems like in a situation like that (storm), the hardest thing is trying to find the one person who knows what’s going on,” he said.

When a snowstorm is underway, situations can change quickly. Everything may be going well with snow plows clearing the highways and applying salt, but a crash can suddenly change the situation. Stalled and wrecked vehicles block the roadways and keep snowplows from clearing the highway.

“Two tractor-trailer wrecks and boom, everything’s closed,” Barr said. “It’s not like you’re going to know what’s happening every minute...in the world there are things that change plans.”

Michelle Earl said VDOT has been working on communications issues since the Jan. 17 storm. There had been changes at VDOT during the past three years, and not all of those changes were shared with transportation officials in West Virginia.

“There’s always a learning curve with every incident you go through, and just like any other incident, we realized the need to update some of our information between states,” Earl said.

Another difficulty encountered during the storm was informing the public about the highway closures. Highway departments increasingly use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to pass updates to the public. In West Virginia, the Twitter address for the department of highways is @wv511, Walker said. The Facebook address is wvdot.

In Virginia, people are urged to use 511Virginia during a storm, Earl said. This includes calling 511 or 1-800-367-7623. Connections to VDOT on Twitter and Facebook are available on Virginia Department of Transportation website, www.virginiadot.org.

Communication was a problem on the local level as well. In one case, travelers on Route 52 going past Bluefield State College toward Brushfork got to the top of the hill only to learn from fire fighters the highway had been closed. Tim Farley, director of emergency management for Mercer County, said law enforcement agencies had requested traffic control assistance from local fire departments.

Officers were trying to handle numerous wrecks. Farley said he did not know which law enforcement agency or agencies made the request.

“I know law enforcement was covered up and most were working around I-77, Route 460 and John Nash Boulevard,” he said.

One way residents can help during a storm is to avoid travel if at all possible. Wrecked and stranded vehicles had to the road hazards and make plowing the snow away more difficult.

“People need to stay off the thoroughfare, the main roads,” Farley said.

Many of the motorists who got into trouble during the storm were not local residents. One North Carolina resident trying to reach Princeton relied on a GPS navigator for directions and came to a stop five miles up Halls Ridge Road.

“People unfamiliar with the country roads need to stay off them,” Farley said. “Most of the time, they don’t have vehicles for country roads, and they don’t have chains or survival gear.”