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Transportation secretary vows to 'get to the bottom' of Interstate troubles

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Stacy Vogel
February 22, 2008

Wisconsin has an emergency plan for situations such as the snowstorm that stranded thousands of motorists on Interstate 90/39 overnight Feb. 6.


The state used the emergency plan during two snowstorms in the two weeks following that incident, and it worked just as it was supposed to, said Frank Busalacchi, state transportation secretary.


But for some reason, the plan was not put into action during one of the worst snowstorms ever to hit south central Wisconsin, and Busalacchi wants to know why.


“We have all these things, all these communication tools in place, and for some reason we didn’t utilize them,” he said. “And that’s troubling to me, and I have to get to the bottom of it.”


The report released Thursday from the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs catalogues countless missteps, miscommunications and underestimations among law enforcement agencies between the night of Feb. 5 and the morning of Feb. 7.


Although the mistakes didn’t cause the nightmare on I-90 between Janesville and Madison those days, they made a bad situation must worse, wrote Brig. Gen. Donald P. Dunbar of the Wisconsin National Guard.


“From one end of this incident to the other and from top to bottom, it is remarkable the extent to which some operators and decision-makers in local and state agencies failed to use commonplace and well-known information-sharing practices,” Dunbar wrote.


A timeline in the report shows the accident that sparked the backup occurred at 11:14 a.m. at mile marker 155 northeast of Stoughton. The jam eventually stretched through Rock County to the Illinois state line.


The “trigger point” came around 4 p.m., when agencies were receiving an “overwhelming” number of 911 calls, plows and tow trucks were no longer able to operate effectively, and hotels, restaurants and parking lots were filling in Janesville, the report states.


Yet most state and local agencies didn’t seem to realize the gravity of the situation until 5 p.m. or later.


At 5:40 p.m., the state Emergency Operations Center reported 13 miles of stopped traffic and motorists who had been stranded for hours. The State Patrol replied this was the first it had heard of the magnitude of the backup.


Gov. Jim Doyle, who ordered the report, didn’t hear about the problem until 7 p.m. He declared a state of emergency at 9 p.m.


The report describes a situation where no one knew who was in charge. Officials made decisions on their own without telling other agencies, only to have them reversed or duplicated later.


Dunbar laid most of the blame with the state, especially the Wisconsin State Patrol, an arm of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.


“All agencies involved in this event agree that the Wisconsin State Patrol was the lead agency, and there can be no doubt that their assessment was slow and leadership ineffective.”


Busalacchi accepted Dunbar’s analysis, noting Dunbar put the report together with the assistance of every agency involved in the snowstorm. He said he will sit down with other transportation officials and dissect the report to find solutions.


“My personal opinion is we should have shut that road (I-90) down around 1 o’clock,” he said. “People don’t like the idea that they can’t go where they need to be going, and they have to get a hotel.


“But being on the road out there for 10, 12 hours is awful … It’s not something that should happen to anyone.”


BACKUP TIMELINE

A timeline included in the report from Brig. Gen. Donald Dunbar shows the numerous miscommunications and missed opportunities among law enforcement agencies during the snowstorm of Feb. 5 and 6.


Tuesday, Feb. 5


2:44 p.m.: Snow starts falling in Madison.


8 p.m.: The State Emergency Operations Center partially activates, with representatives from Wisconsin Emergency Management, the Department of Transportation and the Wisconsin National Guard.


Wednesday, Feb. 6


11:14 a.m.: A crash on the northbound lanes of I-90/39 near mile marker 155 (the Stoughton exit) causes a total blockage of the northbound lanes. The crash is believed to be the “trigger point” for the northbound problems that would go on for the next 20 hours.


11:26 a.m.: The Dane County 911 Center receives a call from a driver claiming to be stuck in traffic with “about 1,000” cars near Stoughton. The call is not reported to anyone outside the 911 center.


2:30 p.m.: Callers to Rock County Communications report being stuck in unmoving traffic near the county line for an hour or more. Agencies in Rock and Dane counties receive numerous calls from motorists and members of the press about the backup throughout the afternoon.


4 p.m.: Brig. Gen. Donald Dunbar calls this “the tipping point,” when circumstances overwhelmed resources. An off-duty state trooper reported iced roads with semis spinning their wheels and unmoving traffic, describing the situation as “insanity.” The State Patrol will receive “non-stop” calls for the next hour from stranded motorists.


4:30 p.m.: Rock County reports the backup in northbound lanes extends to mile marker 171, the Highway 26 interchange in Janesville.


5 p.m.: The State Patrol describes I-90/39 as impassable between Madison and Janesville on its Web site. No alternative route is designated. The warning is later taken down.


5:15 p.m.: The State Emergency Operations Center decides to shut down at 6 p.m., “having received no pressing reports of large-scale accidents or blockages.” The center does not shut down.


5:40 p.m.: Officials report 13 miles of stopped traffic. More and more people are calling 911 to say they’ve been stranded for hours and are running out of gas.


The State Patrol reports this is the first time it has heard of the magnitude of the backup.


5:50 p.m.: The Janesville Police Department expresses concern that traffic has been stranded for a couple of hours and Janesville hotels are full. Rock County Emergency Management contacts the Red Cross a few minutes later and is told no shelter will be opened because the organization doesn’t want to endanger volunteers. The agency then contacts the Janesville Salvation Army, which eventually offers shelter to about a dozen people.


6:30 p.m.: The State Patrol decides to send in National Guard resources and law enforcement snowmobilers.


7 p.m.: Snowfall ends in Madison.


7:30 p.m.: Gov. Jim Doyle calls the State Patrol for an update. State Patrol says there is a 14- to 15-mile backup in the northbound lanes.


8 p.m.: The backup reaches to the Highway 11 exit on the south side of Janesville.


9 p.m.: Gov. Jim Doyle declares a state of emergency. Dane and Rock county officials won’t learn of the declaration until after 10 p.m.


9:21 p.m.: The Wisconsin State Patrol tells the Janesville Police Department it does not want civilian snowmobilers to assist stranded drivers on the Interstate.


11:10 p.m.: Illinois Tollway officials are told to activate digital message boards warning northbound drivers of the problems in Rock and Dane counties.


Thursday, Feb. 7


1:23 a.m.: Snowmobilers are deployed to wake drivers and start their vehicles moving.


8 a.m.: A National Guard helicopter flyover shows traffic moving slowly in both directions.


8:45 a.m.: The DOT puts temporary message boards in place near the northbound lanes that read “Expect delays.” Steady progress is made in clearing I-90/39 throughout the morning.


2 p.m.: The State Emergency Operations Center shuts down.



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