First off, you have to understand that my sister and I grew up in Massachusetts, and have driven plenty of times in the snow. It’s no big deal. Sure, your car swerves around a bit, but anyone who’s driven in New England for a few years knows how to manage it. You keep moving, no sudden changes in speed or direction.
There was a report that yesterday afternoon was going to see about 1 inch of snowfall per hour for several hours. Some of our more fraidy-cat relatives said we should stay home. We had planned to go visit an old high school friend of mine up in Norwood, which is normally a 50 minute drive from my sister’s place in Cranston. We figured we’d drive up to Norwood, have lunch, and then make our way back down around 2PM and be home before there were more than a couple inches on the ground.
No problem. Done similar things a hundred times.
The drive up was clear, we enjoyed lunch at with David O’Malley, took a quick tour of Norwood to see the changes, and then headed back south around 2PM, just as we’d planned. There was an inch or so of snow already on the ground as we headed out.
Driving down was slow and careful, as we expected, but we moved at a continuous 20 MPH along Interstate 95 with the rest of the traffic.
Then we approached the Rhode Island line. Traffic slowed. Then slowed some more. Then stopped. Sure, it was snowing at a good clip, but I’ve driven in worse. I had never seen traffic grind to a complete halt over it, though.
The road was completely full of cars. We inched along, literally. As we went deeper into Rhode Island we spent more and more time with the car in park. People got out of their cars to scrape off ice that would form on the windows. We’d move forward a few feet, then park again for several minutes.
My sis and I laughed it off for the first couple hours.
We started coming across abandoned cars in the middle of the highway. People running out of gas, cars breaking down, or who knows. At one point we checked the clock and the odometer and noted that we had travelled less than two miles in three and a half hours.
Luckily, Cindy had filled up the tank before leaving Norwood. So we had plenty of gas… assuming we ever moved. It was already evening now, and we calculated that at the current “speed” it would take an additional 10 hours for us to get home. That meant that we’d be in the car over night. Cindy had also brought along one granola bar.
Oh, and she’s five months pregnant!
And she was starting to need to pee.
At one point I hopped out, stood on the median, and took this picture of her car parked in the fast lane of I-95.
There were several snowplows stuck in the traffic with us, unable to do any good. In fact they just exasperated the problem by making slow snow barriers that blocked the ramps. A car that tried to crash through got stuck.
Since there was nothing else to do, I hopped out along with a few other random people and helped push them into a drivable lane.
An hour later we got off at a random exit to see if the side streets were any better. They weren’t. They were almost completely unplowed and so cars were getting stuck all over. We passed a hotel and a restaurant, where I fleetingly thought we might just spend the night.
We went back on the highway and soon regretted it. I had to push a couple cars (including ours) to make it down the ramp. Then we travelled only a tenth of a mile in another hour. At that point I started wishing we had just tried staying at the hotel.
We also started wondering what was up. I mean, in my 34 years and her 26, neither of us had ever seen such a total collapse of the state road system. We started tuning through the radio to see what was up.
And thanks to, I think, media consolidation, there wasn’t _one_ station talking about the disaster. Pre-programmed music and divisive talk shows from one end of the dial to the other. My sister wondered if they might use the famed Emergency Broadcast System. We listened for the annoying “attention signal”, but it was no where to be found.
Meanwhile, we pass at least ten abandoned cars in the space of a mile. Who knows where the people went, though occasionally we do spot a person walking down the side of the highway in the snow. I start thinking of each move forward as a move away from the hotel we saw. Maybe any progress we make in the car is just more backtracking we’ll have to do on foot later.
By the time we realize this, everyone else has realized too. We start using my sister’s iPhone to look up nearby hotels. Little snippets of technology can be very comforting to us modern humans in such situations.
The hotels are no longer answering their phones. My sister’s husband was at work, and we learn that he couldn’t get out of the parking garage, so they put him up at a nearby hotel for the night. The hotel he’s at is full. He’s also worried and upset that we went out driving today at all.
Luckily, my sister and I are still laughing about it.
Eventually I ask the question “so… when do we just ditch the car and find a place to sleep?”. I mean, I don’t think it’s a good idea to ditch the car, it being her primary transportation and all, but at this point I’m starting to wonder what will happen over the next several hours. Are we prepared to sleep in the car on the highway? Or stay up all night? What about when the gas does run out if we’re stuck here in 10 hours — it’ll get mighty cold.
My sis, quite understandably, does not want to ditch the car. But she recognizes that we don’t have forever to come up with a plan. And suddenly it hits her: friends!
She actually knows someone who lives in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. So she calls them up and asks if we can crash there. They tell us it’s fine. And luckily, they’re off the very next exit!
Of course, it takes us an hour to get to that exit.
Along the way my sister has to climb in the back seat and pee in a tin bucket that just luckily happened to be in her back seat: an unneeded office decoration that she hadn’t had a chance to return to the store yet. She got out of the car and walked over to the Jersey barrier to dump it out.
When we finally got to our exit, we saw what was largely causing the problem.
The exit split into two branches. The branch on the left was blocked by a tractor trailer that had skidded out and got stuck. The branch to the right had a line of maybe 10 cars waiting for a single stuck car to get out of the way. So nobody was going anywhere. I figure similar clogs were occurring at other ramps.
I realized that until each of the cars in front of us got through, we weren’t going anywhere. So I hopped out again and ran to push more cars. They were stuck bad, and it took all I had to get them moving. Fewer people were helpful at this point than earlier, though I did get some help. But I basically stayed there as each car in the line got stuck, and then pushed it through. I probably pushed about six cars through by the time my sister got up to that point and, predictably, got stuck. We got her through, though, and then I ditched out with her. I’m not sure if anyone else hopped out to take up the task, but hey, I did more than my share and we were through.
I didn’t realize until I sat down in the warm car that my throat was burning from my heavy breathing in the cold air. All things considered, though, it wasn’t bad. In fact, it was downright fun. At some point as I pushed a car, the lady driving rolled down her window and said “I’ve been watching you for a while! You’re awesome!”.
The back roads were reasonable at this point. Not well plowed, but usable. We hit Dunkin’ Donuts, which was open. We got briefly stuck for the last time in the parking lot there. We got help from a handful of teenagers that I had just helped. One of them was wearing shorts and carrying a whole pizza.
Finally we made it to her friend’s house. All told we had been on the road for seven hours, to make a trip that would normally take 33 minutes. I called my friend Dave to let him know that we never made it home, but that it was worth it to have dined with him. I had enjoyed my Eggs Benedict, and I hoped he had enjoyed his Frittata.
Cindy’s friend Angela was an amazing hostess. We were treated to a home cooked meal of meatloaf, veggies, and salad. She gave me some Irish Cream for dessert. She had even prepared a little care basket for us with towels, scented soaps and lotions, and dental care products.
We watched the news and learned that indeed the whole state had basically ground to a halt over this average level storm. At 11 PM there were still school busses that had not been able to bring kids home, even having left from school at just after noon. Parents were outraged. Everyone was outraged. The DOT assured everyone that they had pre-treated the highways and had more than enough plows on the road. Finger pointing ensued.
After listening to all the talk and thinking about what we saw, I am pretty sure that the entire problem was gridlock, which stopped the plows (they had plenty), which in turn solidified the gridlock. People had all left work and such early, causing a strong traffic spike in the afternoon.
I think the only solution that would have actually prevented the lockup would have been some mandate that only a percentage of the people could drive at any given time. Something like “if your license plate ends in an even number, head home between 2 and 4, if your license plate ends in an odd number, head home between 4 and 6. Violaters will be arrested.” Of course I can’t imagine they’d do such a thing, but I think it is the only thing that could have kept the plows moving, which is crucial.
Strange that I’d never seen such a problem before. The theory people were floating is that the RI population has grown too rapidly and infrastruction hasn’t kept up. There was also some problem with certain bridges being closed to trucks that caused increased traffic congestion. But what can you do… running a highway system is harder than it looks, I suppose.
I slept on the sofa, my sister got the guest room. By the next morning everything was running normally again. And we drove the last leg home.
In the end, we heard no reports of any serious injuries throughout the ordeal. So as much of a stink as we all made of The Great Rhode Island Snow And Traffic Crisis Of 2007, it was nothing but an inconvenience.
And my sister and I agreed it was in fact more fun and memorable than anything else we might have done that day