If you want a fascinating read, open the Adjutant General's Response to Traffic and Public Safety Issues in February 5-6 Winter Storm (PDF).
That's the report on the 24-mile long traffic jam on Interstate Highway 90-39 between Stoughton and Janesville that stranded 2,000 vehicles for nine hours and more during that Wednesday's blizzard that dumped over 13 inches of snow.
The narrative builds suspense as first one report after another comes in yet no one is really putting the big picture together. Maybe that's the lesson, here. It is difficult to process facts that occur outside of normal routine, even for many professional emergency experts.
The lesson I draw: Get information from as many sources as possible and start talking about it and do consider doing the unthinkable -- in this case, closing the Interstate Highway to new traffic.
Needs more work
Adjutant General Donald Dunbar writes that the State Patrol "was slow to recognize that an emergency existed."
Other state agencies come in for criticism but the DNR, for mobilizing its wardens, and the National Guard get praise.
Heroes: Dane County and private snowmobile clubs
Here's some praise:
Dane and Rock Counties also performed very well in this emergency and throughout the day as they addressed many areas of concern beyond the highway. They provided additional resources to stranded motorists and to the State Patrol throughout the night. In fact, when most counties pulled equipment and crews to rest for the night and prepare for the morning rush hour, Dane and Rock Counties kept crews on to support the State Patrol.
Dane County was the first agency to recognize the severity and danger of this event. At about 4 p.m., Dane County began developing an incident action plan for stranded motorists. At approximately 5:30 p.m., they communicated their concerns and plans to the State EOC. Dane County also took the lead in deploying snowmobiles to deliver water, food, and blankets to stranded motorists and to check on citizen welfare, and they established an on-site command post to work this emergency.
Additionally, Dane County led the way with an excellent snowmobile plan to try and reach stranded citizens.
Particular heroes jump out: Namely, Kathy Krusiec, Dane County emergency management director, and Topf Wells, executive assistant to County Executive Kathleen Falk, although they are not named in the report except by title, and Falk herself.
Then things turned:
In every scenario that becomes a large-scale emergency, there is a "tipping point" when the required response exceeds the capability of the lead or local agency and additional help is needed. On February 6, that tipping point occurred at approximately 4 p.m. At that point, some members of the public had been sitting in traffic for over four hours, and a severe backup, in excess of twenty miles, existed in Dane and Rock Counties along I-39/90.
It was clear that this problem would extend well into the night and that Wisconsin citizens were at risk.
... it was at 4 p.m. that there appeared significant indicators: an "overwhelming" volume of 9-1-1 calls; the inability of county plow, salt, and tow crews to operate effectively; news media reports of a severe backup; hotels, restaurants and parking lots filling up in Janesville; and the impassability of most if not all on/off ramps to I-39/90. At that point, a delay in recognizing the scope of the emergency became critical.
By 4 p.m. the highway had become a clogged pipe, and the added volume of traffic arriving from the south was continuing to worsen the situation. It would take over 18 hours from this point to fully clear the westbound lanes of the Interstate.
A DOT employee driving home at 2 p.m. notices the Interstate northbound from Highway 12 & 18 is totally empty. Then calls back an hour later saying he still hasn't seen a car on the northbound Interstate.
If you read anything, read the chronology and start on Page 13. Here are excerpts...
The morning of Wednesday, February 6:
At 8 a.m. a DOT region area maintenance engineer stops at Dane County Shop to see if they are ready for the snow event. Plows were out at this time.
Weather conditions in Madison at 10 a.m.: Snow falling at .8 inches per hour, 24 degrees, north winds of 21 mph. Total accumulated snowfall since storm began is 5.9 inches.
At 10:11 a.m. a motorist westbound on I-90 calls the Dane County 9-1-1- center and reports "we're all backed up here."
At 10:46 a.m., Rock County dispatcher asks the State Patrol if I-39/90 will be shutting down "anytime soon." State Patrol advises that the Interstate highway is not shut down because it is a "national defense highway."
State Patrol receives report at 11:14 a.m. of crash on northbound/westbound I-39/90 at milepost 155 resulting in total blockage of all northbound lanes. This event is now believed to be the "trigger point" for northbound 1-39/90 problems that would persist for the next 20 hours.
At 11:26 a.m., Dane County 9-1-1 center receives call from a motorist claiming to be stuck in unmoving traffic with "about 1,000 cars" near Stoughton. The claim apparently is not viewed as significant and does not appear to have been reported to anyone outside the Dane County 9-1-1 center.
Weather conditions in Madison at noon: Heavy snow falling at .9-inch per hour, 24 degrees, north winds of 22 mph gusting to 29 mph. Total accumulated snowfall since storm began is 7.5 inches.
At 12:04 p.m. a man stopped at milepost 156 northbound reports that trucks can't make it up the hill.
Weather conditions in Madison at 2 p.m.: Heavy snow falling at 1.3 inches per hour, 23 degrees, north winds of 20 mph gusting to 28 mph. Total accumulated snowfall since storm began is 9.6 inches.
A DOT employee driving home to Janesville at 2 p.m. reports there doesn't appear to be any traffic heading northbound on I-39/90 once he got past the U.S. Hwy 12/18 interchange.
At 3:23 p.m., the DOT employee working his way to Janesville for the past two hours has now reached the U.S. Hwy 51/Stoughton interchange where he reports multiple semis off the road on northbound lanes and traffic backed up.
,br> At 3:51 p.m., a state trooper headed off duty is stuck in northbound/westbound traffic at mile marker 155. He reports iced roads with semis spinning their wheels. "We can't go south and we can't go north," he says. He describes the scene as "insanity." In hindsight, this probably represents the "tipping point" after which this event had clearly become an emergency.
At 4 p.m. the chief of staff to the Dane County Executive called for an update on storm and response efforts to stranded motorists countywide. Both the Highway Commissioner and Emergency Management Director indicate concerns about backup increasing on Interstate. Chief of staff offers whatever resources necessary to deal with weather-related issues through the afternoon and evening.
Dane County develops Incident Action Plan at 4:15 p.m. Plan addresses safety issues: motorists stuck in rural areas; Assuring that emergency vehicles can continue to get to emergencies; concerns that elderly/shut-ins receive needed meals, medicines, oxygen; concern for people who have left their vehicles.
At 5:17 p.m., Dane County EM director speaks with State Patrol incident commander for update. They are moving one vehicle at a time, pulling and pushing up the inclines, very time-consuming.
At 6:30 p.m., the assistant to the Dane County executive calls the Dane County Emergency Management director for an update. The EM director expresses concern with the state's "lack of response to stranded motorists on the Interstate" and said the county was working hard to help them.
At 6:40 p.m., the Dane County executive offers to contact snowmobile clubs for assistance in delivering food, water and emergency supplies to motorists stuck in the queue. The county's EM director concurs with this plan.
At 6:45 p.m., a motorist with a hungry or sick child reports being stuck in traffic almost six hours at mile marker 162 near the Dane/Rock line.
From 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. a State Patrol sergeant reports that the snowplows are traveling southbound in the northbound lanes to get to the site. Wreckers are pushing tractor semi-trailer units up the hill. Snowmobilers are knocking on the doors of the tractor units to wake up the operators.
At 9:31 p.m., Dane County sets up the first of a regular series of multi-agency conference calls. State Patrol advises there will not be an alternate route established and it has been decided to "stay the course."
During a 10:05 p.m. television newscast, the Rock County EM coordinator learns for the first time that the Governor had declared a state of emergency for her county.
At 10:31 p.m., the Dane County Emergency Operations Center is notified by email from the State EOC public information officer that the Governor had declared a state of emergency for Dane and Rock counties.
And then by the morning of Thursday, February 17:
Third air recon flight lifts off at 8 a.m. Reports traffic between Madison and Janesville now moving slowly in both directions.