Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ice, Ice, Baby

(Image from the Washington Post Express)

On Tuesday night, this area suffered through the Worst. Ice Storm. Ever. (Well, actually, there was one last year that was worse, with 180,000 people losing power.) The forecasts were wrong, as usual, having said this would be an all-rain event by evening. That never happened. Every road was slick, with the surface temperature being colder than the air.

As a result, accidents of 15 to 20 vehicles became commonplace, our office was flooded with far more accidents than we could report (more on that in a bit), and several major highways were completely shut down in portions, most notably the Springfield Mixing Bowl (the convergence of I-95, the Beltway, and I-395 south of DC). The interchange was recently completely rebuilt, with numerous high flyovers to keep traffic moving. One small problem, however: All those flyovers, being bridges, froze right up. The whole contraption was a skating rink and was closed for hours, with rescue vehicles being unable to get to those stranded.

In our office, we couldn't keep up with all the accidents, and those that were in the system slowed it to a crawl as they all started aging off after a set period of time. Normally, three or four such events are flashing on the screen, reminding us to update them or clear them. During a rush, it can become 15 to 20. But on Tuesday, there were more than 50 expiring events.

We couldn't call any of the police or emergency services to verify anything, and they wouldn't have wanted us to call anyway because they were swamped in turn. So we just had to throw our hands up in despair. We got our drivers off the road as quickly as we could. Meanwhile, radio listeners were calling in complaining that our reports weren't mentioning the icy conditions. We had warnings of icy conditions all over the screen; we didn't have time to call the reporters in Philadelphia to reiterate this.

A good friend of mine wound up in an accident because of the ice, and at a local ER, she found that the emergency services were stretched way beyond their limits, with more incidents than ambulances could possibly respond to.

And now the blame game has started. With the Springfield mess, everyone is blaming VDOT. VDOT blames the weatherman, but is now apologizing nonetheless.

It was a night all of us, and all of the MD/DC/NoVA area, would just as soon forget, but those sitting on I-95, I-395, or the Beltway for up to 10 hours will have a hard time doing so. And at least I was only getting stressed out in my office, rather than on the road or in a hospital.