HARRISBURG, Pa. – Breakdowns by state police, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and emergency management responses helped strand hundreds of people on Interstate 78 during last week’s winter storm, according to a report by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s office.

The report by Rendell senior adviser Greg Fajt and Secretary of Administration Joseph Martz is the first from a series of inquiries into how the Feb. 13-14 storm crippled three interstates, including the 50-mile snarl on I-78.

A Senate joint hearing is scheduled for this afternoon, and a similar House hearing is set for tomorrow.

According to the report:

• There were breakdowns in initial response by PennDOT managers in several counties. “We simply didn’t plan well enough before the storm or execute well after the storm began in Berks, Schuylkill or Luzerne counties,” PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler said. “Once we fell behind, a series of accidents frustrated our efforts to clear the roadways.”

• State police responding to isolated crashes and other emergencies failed to connect the dots and “effectively and quickly communicate those problems to the highest levels of state government,” Martz said.

• As a result, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency did not fully activate its emergency operations center, a move that essentially shifts management of storm response from counties to the state.

That activation eventually came at 7:50 p.m. Feb. 14, for a storm that began to affect the state the previous morning.

In addition to legislative hearings, the administration has contracted with James Lee Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm led by the head of the Clinton administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, to review the state’s response.

Witt said he hopes to present recommendations to Rendell within two weeks.

The storm has triggered criticism from motorists and truckers caught in its traffic jams, or the days-long highway closures of portions of Interstates 78, 80 and 81.

Teresa Smith of Manlius, N.Y., wrote in an e-mail to the Harrisburg Patriot-News: “Some heads should roll and people should be fired over this.”

A regional expert on disaster planning and response agreed that the state’s reaction appeared to be “appalling.”

“We know that we’re going to have winter storms in Pennsylvania, just like in the spring we’re going to have floods,” said Hank Fischer, director of the Center for Disaster Research and Education at Millersville University.

“If television helicopters can be flying over and taking video … where is our planning to get out there and help the people?” Fischer said.

According to state officials, the calamity on Interstate 78 – where the last motorists weren’t pulled off the road until about 1 a.m. Friday – started about 10 a.m. Wednesday when an eastbound tractor-trailer got stuck on an icy hill near the Shartlesville exit in Berks County. Shortly afterward, a westbound truck became stuck.

Traffic quickly backed up in both directions, preventing plows from getting through, and the number of stranded vehicles multiplied as other trucks became disabled and new motorists continued to enter the ice-coated stretch of highway until about 5 p.m.

Rendell said he took a call in Philadelphia about 7:55 p.m. from a member of his state police detail who was fielding angry calls from motorists stuck in the traffic jam.

Rendell said it was the first time he learned of the ice trap, and he moved to activate the National Guard.

By 9 p.m., guardsmen were patrolling the highway in Humvees, distributing meals, bottled water and blankets, and transporting some motorists to shelters.

Meanwhile, situations were deteriorating on Interstates 81 and 80, but state officials didn’t fully close those roads until 5 p.m. Thursday, after many motorists had been stuck all day.

Craig Shuey, executive director of the Senate Transportation Committee, conceded it’s rare for the Legislature to delve into the nuts and bolts of snow removal and emergency management. But he said the breakdown appears unprecedented.

“I don’t recall a situation where 50 miles of highway was closed for three days with traffic still sitting on it,” Shuey said. “This was not the result that any of the commonwealth’s citizens expected, so we need to figure out how to engineer a better response to the next one.”


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