A Close Call on I 95: A New Normal?

Last week Peggy and I took off from our home in Westport, CT to Clearwater Beach FLA where we’ll be snow-birding till the beginning of April. We’ve rented a condo in the Regatta Beach Club in North Clearwater. Such is octogenarian privilege (for some).

On the way, however, we ran into a dangerous snowstorm in the Washington D.C. area. It turned out to be truly frightening in a way that likely portends a new normal of systemic breakdown in the face of climate change and the inability and/or unwillingness of government to respond to associated problems.

Here’s what happened.

As we drove down I 95 on the outskirts of D.C., downed trees inhibited passage all along the way. Fallen trees overburdened by a wet snowfall blocked entire lanes while the rest of the highway was covered with snow, ice, and slush. Such conditions and innumerable accidents (with many cars stuck in the median) reduced highway passage to a crawl. There was not an emergency vehicle in sight.

Then suddenly everything stopped completely. Unbeknownst to anyone, a huge accident involving long-haul trailers lay some miles ahead. At least one of the truck drivers was trapped inside his tractor and had to be extricated by emergency crews. The process took hours.

Peggy and I were part of the lineup for about 5 hours – crawling forward only occasionally at less than a snail’s pace.

Luckily, our crawl eventually took us near an exit. On cellphone advice from our son, Patrick, we decided to leave the traffic jam then and there. We could see that there were several motels in the vicinity. We drove towards them, leaving the highway for a service road.

However, we found all the lodgings in darkness with empty parking lots. Evidently, electrical service had been lost to the entire area. And now we were on an uncleared side road and in danger of getting stuck in the snow with no one around to help. With difficulty, we made it back to the highway.

Peggy then secured a room for us via her Hilton app at a Comfort Inn about 20 miles from I 95. She also phoned ahead to confirm the reservation. The first words she heard from the motel desk were, “Thank you for calling Comfort Inn. All rooms are taken this evening. None are available.”

Peggy responded, “Yes, but I’ve just made a reservation online and it was accepted. Please check your records.”

“Oh, yes, here it is,” came the response. “You got the last available room.”

Relieved, we arrived at the Inn and were in bed by midnight.

The next morning, we found out how unbelievably fortunate we had been. I 95 was still closed and would remain so for most of the day. Many people, we read, had been forced to abandon their unheated cars now out of gas or electrical charge. They had to walk through the ice and snow to – who knows where?

The highway was closed for most of the next day. [Can you imagine the complications involved in removing (and retrieving) all those abandoned cars?]

Meanwhile, Peggy and I were able to continue towards Florida on secondary roads. It took us an extra day to reach our destination. But we were so much more fortunate than those other stranded motorists.

It was a close call indeed – for us, but a real tragedy for so many others.

However, the whole affair made us reflect on what promises to be a new normal. It demonstrates the inability of laissez-faire government to deal even with comparatively minor and predictable emergencies, much less with major ones looming on the climate-chaos horizon.  For instance:

  • Virginia governor Ralph Northam refused to deploy the National Guard to help stranded motorists by clearing even a single lane to safety – or to distribute food, blankets, and information.
  • More specifically, despite unprecedented communications technology at their disposal (including at the very least helicopters with loudspeakers) motorists were left without basic information about the severity and likely time span of their situation.
  • They were stranded without means of mass transportation at highway exists to bring them to safety and warming centers which did not become available till noon the next day.
  • At the most basic level, highway crews left entire lanes blocked by fallen trees on I 95 for more than 24 hours despite possessing the machinery for debris removal.

All of this raises questions about government and its purpose in the face of (once again) entirely predictable and more severe emergencies ahead. As one stranded motorist put it, “No one came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to even clear one lane for all of us to get out of that mess?”

Get ready, this promises to be the new normal. Evidently, despite our tax dollars and the predictability of emergencies much worse than the I 95 occurrence, we’re all on our own.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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