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2011-01-27: Snow Jam/Tuyết Lầy

The first major snowstorm of 2011 was a disaster for commuters.  They call it the "worst rush hour of all time" in the Washington DC metropolitan area.  I call it the worst driving experience I have ever had in my life.  Three out of four members of my family were unwilling participants/involved in the commute-to-remember!  Years away, when people talk about this rush-hour commute, I am sure I still remember exactly what happened.  Here are my recollection and opinions of the commute home on this dreadful day:

January 26, 2011 4:05 PM
My car-pool mates, Chinh and Hiep, and I left my work at 12 Street SW, Washington DC, heading to highway I-66 West (via I-395 South and the Pentagon.)  Snow had been falling but none stuck to the road yet; however, traffic was real heavy.  Based on 22-year of experience working in DC, Chinh estimated that it might take us 2.5 hours to get home.  Our normal travel time is 45 minutes because we can use the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane in rush hour.  Let’s see if he was right!

January 26, 2011 5:50 PM
t had been almost 2 hours since our departure for home but we were able to go for just a few miles.  I called my wife to tell her that I was on the way home but it was going to be another 2 hours at least.  She told me that my daughter left her work in Tysons Corners at 3:30PM but she was still somewhere on Route 123.   My son was also coming home from George Mason University in Fairfax; he left there around 4PM.

About half an hour later, we came upon a cab, which had spun to its left, putting it in a small incline, blocking two lanes of traffic.  The driver tried to rectify it but it went nowhere as the tires had no traction.  We had to veer around the cab to get moving and had a good clearance for about a good couple miles.  I have a
Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) so driving on the snow and partly on the side of the road was no problem.

The second half of the ordeal started as soon as we get to the Vienna metro station where we faced an onslaught of metro-riders, now driving their own cars, trying to merge onto I-66 West.

January 26, 2011 7:35PM
We finally reached the exits to Fair Oaks mall and thought the end was near.  We were on the HOV-lane and traffic was moving slowly but steadily.  We would take the HOV-lane exit #55 to Stringfellow Road 1.5 miles ahead then Hiep and I just had to drive about 2 miles in local roads to get home.  [Chinh still had to drive another 5-6 miles to his house though, and we didn’t realize at that time that his commute was far from being over.] 
Our drop-off location was so close but was now so far to reach because we could not take our normal exit.  We saw the gates to the HOV exit ram at the Monument Drive (the HOV-exit before ours) had been closed at 7:30PM so we had no choice but to move over to the right lane to take the regular 55B exit to Fair Lakes in order to get to the parking lot.  We spent an hour there to get to nowhere because the exit ram was now look like a parking lot.  We finally decided to move on to the next exit (53A/B), and found another way home.

January 26, 2011 8:30PM
At about the same time, my wife called to check on my progress.  She told me that my daughter was not too far behind me as she was trying to take Exit 55B.  My son was on 29-South right around the Harley-Davidson dealership in Fairfax, trying to fight through traffic, too.  Soon after, my daughter called and asked me for suggestions.  Having spent an hour trying to take exit 55B and now also getting stuck trying to get off at exit 53 in front of her, I told her to stay where she was for a while more before making any move.  Having been on the road for 5 hours and home was just less than 10 minutes away but she couldn't move her car, she sounded upset and decided to stay put.  I asked her if she had enough gas in her car and she said she did.  I was hoping that at least one of us would have a chance to get home before the other, rather than both being stuck in one place.

I usually drink a lot of water.  And true to my astrological sign, Aquarius, I always carry a case of bottled water in my car.  I hadn't had any drink of water in the last 4.5 hours for fear of having to go to the bathroom.  As we line up in the exit lanes at Exit 53 we started drinking a little bit because we thought we should be home soon.  But little did we know that it would be another 1.5 hours before we finally reached the parking lot where my friends parked their cars.  As we came to a standstill for a while, we saw a few guys got out of their cars to relieve themselves on the side of the road.  I don't blame them at all, but just wondered who/what they were aiming their frustration at for this mess (hopefully not at their tires because they needed their tires to have good traction to get them home in this treacherous condition.)

There were two lines of cars which we thought were ready to take exit 53A and 53B - the left lane for exit 53A (Route 28 South) and the right lane exit 53B (Route 28 North.)  Hiep asked me to take exit 53A to hopefully get home sooner to his elderly mother who had been alone in the last 5 hours, so we stayed on the left lane.  But looking far ahead I saw some cars had to go around a disabled car, so I drove past quite a number of cars to make the same move and advanced closer to the exit.  I also saw that there had been no movement on the bridge over I-66 which exit 53A would lead us to Route 28 South.  We wondered out loud what the hell could have been the problem at the front of the line!  [I later found out that the 53A exit we originally planned to take had been closed due to disabled vehicle(s), so the exit ram was no longer an exit any more.]

January 26, 2011 9:30PM
All of a sudden we saw a caravan of cars being lead by a big SUV and a plow truck driving on what looked to be the side of the road because no cars had been on it for a while.  Then we didn't see any backup on that right lane, so those cars must have been able to clear whatever that was the blockage.  That meant they were able to take exit #53B.  So, I told Hiep and Chinh that we should change our plan and try to do the same, and I know the area so well we could have a couple options to get to where we wanted to be.   But we needed to cross over another lane of traffic to get to that lane of "highway to heaven."  Chinh and Hiep agreed and both opened their windows to help me move the car over as soon as there was an opening.  We soon found out that in fact that was the lane for exit 53B.  Then there was yet another roadblock in front of us which forced me to take the left fork of the exit to go around the disabled car to get onto 28-North (towards Dulles Airport) to head home.   Never have I felt so relieved knowing I was close to home.  We got to the parking lot around 09:50PM for Chinh to pick up his car to drive home and I drove Hiep to his home and to get gas for my car as well.  I had half a tank of gas in my car at the start of the day but it was almost empty by then.  We found out the next day that Chinh spent another 2.5 hours on the road (which normally takes him 15 minutes) before reaching home.

January 26, 2011 10:30PM
I finally reached home after 6.5 hours on the road to travel about 28 miles.  My wife told me that our neighborhood lost electricity for a few hours and it had just been restored about 15 minutes earlier.   I spent the next 1.5 hours after eating a quick dinner to clean half of the driveway for my kids to park their cars when they got home.  My daughter came home around January 27, 2011 12:30AM; her total travel time: 9 hours to go 17 miles.   And my son, who had the shortest commute of less than 10 miles, came home last at January 27, 2011 01:30AM after 9.5 hours.

Here are my observations/feelings about this experience:

  • Communication: During this whole ordeal, my wife acted as the “Central Commander” and called me and our children to find out about each person's where about then relayed the information to the others (and also to give the kids words of encouragement.)  I found this to be very helpful.  Through the information my wife provided I quickly figured out the overall situation - a total gridlock in the entire region.  But at least after each of her calls, I knew up to that point that my kids were still in their car safely, with the hope that they both would get home soon.  On the other hand, there was virtually no communication from the local/state government.  When we were near exit 55A/B, the message board they put on the side of the highway still showed its normal daily message: "Delay to Exit 47".  In this day and age of advanced technology, that really was a shame!  When I got home, I turned on Verizon Traffic report on TV and found out that Exit 53A (28 South) which we originally plan to take had been closed due to a disable vehicle(s).  I don't remember hearing any thing about it on radio stations after we turned off the music.
  • The stupidity of the Virginia Department of Transportation or whoever decided to close the I-66West exits to Monument Drive and Stringfellow Road at 7:30PM as normal.   Hello, this was not your "normal" rush hour, so leave those damn exits open to give people another option to get home, you idiots!  It later proved that the rush hour period did not end until the wee hours of the following day.  What is normally a 2-minute drive for us to get from I-66 HOV exit to Stringfellow Rd to our parking log turned out to be almost two hours later.
  • I think the main culprit of this whole mess was that all exit rams were blocked by abandoned/disabled cars (e.g., out of gas.)   What I found incredulous is people at the top of the backup line did not seem to act, either because they were too tired and were waiting for help to come to move the stuck/disabled/abandoned car in front of them, or to just get around that disabled car and moved on.  Those who were at the back of the line had no idea what the real problem was and thus just sat there and waited and waited.  What was also aggravating to me was that I saw no police presence near exits 53A/B and 55A/B.  The state troopers who normally position themselves at exits 55A/B to catch speeders and/or HOV-lane violation were nowhere to be found.  I surmised that they probably got "stuck" in their warm and comfortable office/barrack due to inclement weather!  I would have come up to them and asked them to open the gate to the HOV-exit ram to Stringfellow Rd.  I am sure other drivers would have done the same.
  • Many drivers were ill prepared for winter driving condition.  Many cars got stuck because their tires had no traction; those should be off the road to begin with.  I used to live in upstate New York (Albany) where snow falls as early as Columbus Day (mid October) and you will be ticketed if you don’t have snow tires on your car by then.
  • Having company in the car is also a big moral booster and helps keep your state of mind in check.  I am glad that I had Chinh and Hiep to share this experience with.  We went through 5 CDs of good music and discussed various topics, from cooking to female singers' style and beauty and "claiming" our favorite singer(s), which really helped pass the time.  On the contrary, my daughter was alone in her car.  When I talked to her around 8:30PM, having spent 5 hours on the road she felt dejected and didn't want to consider making the move to the next exit.  But she later told me that she had her hope up when I called and told her how I got out of the traffic mess; she decided to follow the path I took and finally got home, but almost 2 hours later.
  • Finally, I hope that this is a learning experience for the local/state government so they’d better prepare/plan for potential disasters in the future.  Imagine what a chaotic setting it would be in a real evacuation when there are panic and crying children on the road!