By Jason Hanna, Steve Almasy and Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN
Updated: Wed, 05 Jan 2022 13:39:17 GMT
A 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in eastern Virginia reopened Tuesday night after a severe winter storm left some motorists stranded on the highway for more than 24 hours.
All disabled vehicles were removed from I-95 in that stretch in the Fredericksburg area between Richmond and Washington, D.C., by 8 p.m., transportation officials said.
A Monday storm dumped more than a foot of snow in the area and not only stranded highway travelers overnight, but also snarled traffic on other roads and halted an Amtrak passenger train for more than 30 hours.
At one point, the storm left more than 400,000 customers in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast without power.
On Virginia's I-95, motorists became stuck Monday into Tuesday partly because of disabled trucks blocking the way in snowy and icy conditions, state transportation officials said.
Drivers described turning their engines on for a time to heat up, turning them off to conserve fuel, and sharing food and supplies with one another as crews tried to clear trucks blocking the way after they were unable to continue in ice and snow. Temperatures had dipped into the teens overnight.
Jim DeFede, a journalist who was driving home to Miami after a holiday visit with family in New York, told CNN's Jake Tapper on Tuesday that once he stopped, he was stuck for 18 hours.
He said he watched others who got out of their cars slip and slide on the ice and he stayed put, thinking there was no way emergency responders would get there if he fell and was hurt.
He said he had heard reports there were no deaths or injuries.
"That's great. But that's just -- that's just dumb luck at this point," he said. "This could have been a lot more serious."
Live updates: Drivers trapped for hours on I-95
He said one trucker was handing out bottles of water and one bread delivery truck opened its doors and people handed out loaves.
DeFede finally got moving but was sent north, in the direction he had come from until, after two hours, he got off the interstate and found a place to stay.
US Sen. Tim Kaine, who was driving toward Washington, said he was stuck on I-95 for more than 24 hours.
"At some point, it switched from a miserable travel day into kind of a survival mode day for me," the Virginia Democrat told CNN's Alisyn Camerota on Tuesday by phone. "And the roads are incredibly slick, and my car is sliding around, and I don't have food or drink in my car, so I was more focused on, 'OK, how do I safely get out of this mess.' "
Long lines of vehicles were snarled in portions of the roughly 50-mile stretch between exit 104 near Ruther Glen and exit 152 near Dumfries. Authorities closed that portion of the highway so workers could remove disabled vehicles and treat the road for snow and icing, the Virginia Department of Transportation said.
Hazardous conditions lingered Wednesday, as some roads still were icy, VDOT said.
Another winter storm could hit central and east-central Virginia late Thursday into Friday morning. Snow "could create additional travel disruptions into the Friday morning commute," the National Weather Service said Wednesday morning.
'I could have walked home faster than this'
Motorists expressed frustration on social media Monday and Tuesday as they sat in vehicles on I-95, unable to move and worried about below-freezing overnight and morning temperatures.
By 11 a.m. Tuesday, Susan Phalen was able to finally start driving her car again on northbound I-95 after being stuck just south of Stafford for nearly 15 hours. "I could have walked home faster than this, pretty much," Phalen told CNN by phone.
But the southbound traffic she was passing still was stuck late that morning. "It's semi truck after semi truck after semi truck ... not even rolling an inch," she said.
Also trapped on I-95 overnight was Jennifer Travis, who with her husband and 12-year-old daughter were driving a rental car back to their Virginia home from Florida because their return flight had been canceled twice.
They were stuck on I-95 for hours early Tuesday with enough fuel for heat, but with no water or food. By 10 a.m., the family had been able to take an exit, but now was driving a road that hadn't been plowed.
Many secondary roads in the region were blocked by downed trees or wintry conditions, authorities said, so even those able to get off I-95 faced difficult travels.
"Trees are down, cars are just everywhere. ... It's treacherous," Travis told CNN by phone.
Aerial video from CNN affiliate WJLA showed numerous vehicles stationary Tuesday morning on four lanes of I-95 in Caroline County, south of Fredericksburg. A few people, including children, were standing outside cars. One man was walking his dog on a leash.
Phalen -- who had been stuck north of Fredericksburg -- said she left her Fredericksburg home around 8 p.m. Monday for a trip to Alexandria which she'd expected to last just an hour.
She left Fredericksburg, she said, because her home lost power, and she also lost cell phone service there.
"Because I didn't have cell phone or internet connection at the house in Fredericksburg, I wasn't able to see this nightmare I was walking into until I was smack dab in the middle of it, and then it was too late," Phalen said.
She said she started with a full tank of gas, and was able to keep her car running for heat.
More than a foot of snow
The Fredericksburg area received at least 14 inches of snow from the storm, according to the National Weather Service in the Baltimore/Washington area.
"We know people have been stopped for extraordinary time periods leading up to these closure areas, but we are clearing trucks one by one to break through this blockage, and we will get to each driver and restore traffic flow," Kelly Hannon, spokesperson for the VDOT Fredericksburg District, told CNN early Tuesday.
A trucker, Jean-Carlo Gachet, was stuck for hours on I-95 near Dale City from about 1 a.m. Tuesday, he said.
He had food, water and a microwave, so he shared a heated breakfast with a man and his mother in a vehicle in front of him, he said. "Easily the longest traffic jam I've been in," said Gachet, who said he'd left Rhode Island around 5 p.m. Monday and was trying to get to Georgia.
CNN en Español correspondent Gustavo Valdés was among those stuck in traffic. He said when he stopped for gas around 6 p.m., his GPS said he was two hours from Washington. By 1 a.m. Tuesday, he still hadn't arrived.
Valdés said he exited the highway near Quantico, Virginia, but the side roads were also jammed. Route 1A, which runs parallel to I-95 in the area, was blocked by jackknifed trucks, which were preventing snowplows from getting through.
Valdés said he considered pulling to the side of the road to spend the night in his car because he couldn't find an available hotel room, but traffic had started moving again.
Some four-wheel-drive vehicles helped create new paths through the snow for other vehicles to follow, he said.
While traffic was snarled on the interstate, drivers were also urged to stay off local roadways as dozens of traffic signals were out of service due to power outages, officials said.
More than 270,000 customers were in the dark Tuesday afternoon from Georgia to Maryland, with nearly 235,000 outages reported in Virginia alone, according to PowerOutage.US.
Federal offices in Washington open with three-hour delay
Further north on I-95, federal government offices in Washington, DC, opened with a three-hour delay Tuesday after being shuttered Monday due to the weather. The district recorded 8.5 inches of snow Monday, the heaviest one-day snow total since January 2016, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said. Capitol Heights, Maryland, recorded 11.5 inches of snow and Baltimore/Washington International Airport reported 6.7 inches.
It could take several weeks for all that snow to melt, CNN meteorologist Pedram Javaheri said, explaining that the white layer of snow cover reflects sunlight, essentially acting as a coolant that prevents the ground surface from warming enough to melt it.
On average, it takes about three days of temperatures above 50 degrees for about 2 to 4 inches of snow to melt, Javaheri said, and the Washington area is forecast to stay below that mark through at least the end of the week.
3 killed when SUV collided with snowplow, officials say
Three deaths were reported in Maryland after an SUV with four occupants collided with a snowplow, according to Shiera Goff, spokesperson for the Montgomery County Police Department. Two women and one man were pronounced dead at the scene, Goff said, and a fourth victim, a man, was taken to an area hospital where he is in critical condition.
The investigation into the cause of the collision is ongoing, Goff said.
In the Southeast, two children were killed by falling trees Monday morning, officials said.
In Georgia, a 5-year-old boy in the Atlanta area died when a tree fell on his home during gusting winds, DeKalb County Fire Rescue spokesman Capt. Jaeson Daniels told CNN affiliate WSB. The boy's mother was safely rescued, the outlet reported.
The ground in the area was saturated by recent rainfall, Daniels told WSB. The weather service in Atlanta warned of possible wind gusts from 40 to 50 mph Monday morning.
And in Tennessee, a 7-year-old girl died early Monday when a tree fell on her home in the Knoxville area, the Blount County Sheriff's Office told CNN affiliate WVLT.
"There are trees down all over the county, particularly here in Townsend, because we are right at the foothills of the Great Smoky National Park," BCSO Public Information Officer Marian O'Briant told WVLT. "There are a lot of trees; it was kind of a wet heavy snow, so trees are still falling right now."
CNN has reached out to DeKalb County Fire Rescue and the Blount County Sheriff's Office.