By 1 p.m. Tuesday, morale was plummeting for Jennifer Travis, her husband and their 12-year-old daughter.
They were down to half a bottle of water and no snacks. Their last meal had been at a Denny’s at 7 p.m. Monday. They hadn’t slept and were dressed for sunny Florida, not the frigid snowstorm in Virginia that had stranded them in their rented Chevy Tahoe for more than 18 hours.
“It’s getting hard because it’s not getting any better,” said Travis, 42, her voice cracking as she sat on traffic-clogged U.S. Route 17 near Fredericksburg. “They keep saying help is coming. But it’s not coming. Nobody’s directing traffic. Nobody’s at the stoplight saying ‘OK, you go, go, go, go, go.’ It’s every man for themselves right now. And that sucks.”
Travis and her family were among hundreds of motorists who waited desperately for help Tuesday after the winter storm snarled traffic and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours along an impassable stretch of Interstate 95 south of the nation’s capital. Even after motorists escaped I-95, many like Travis got stuck on side roads for several more hours.
Problems began Monday morning when a truck jackknifed on I-95, triggering a swift chain reaction as other vehicles lost control, state police said. Lanes in both directions became blocked on a 40-mile (64-kilometer) stretch of the interstate, the main north-south highway along the East Coast. As hours passed and night fell, motorists posted messages on social media about running out of fuel, food and water.
“Haven’t had breakfast,” Travis said Tuesday afternoon. “Haven’t had lunch. Haven’t had snacks. I’ve got a growing 12-year-old girl. I’m sure she’s getting hangry.”
The family was on vacation in Florida, visiting Universal Studios in Orlando for New Year’s. Their flight home was canceled Sunday and then again Monday. So they rented the Tahoe and planned to drive straight home to Sterling, in northern Virginia, where Travis owns a marketing company.
It was a smooth drive for about 11 hours. But in Virginia, traffic began to back up on I-95 near Stafford. They decided to get on U.S. Route 1, which runs parallel.
Then, for some reason, Travis said Google Maps rerouted them back on to I-95, which appeared clear.
“Within 10 to 15 minutes, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic,” Travis said. “It was just stacked-up cars.”
In the ensuing hours, the family took stretch breaks outside, where Travis said the temperature fell to 19 degrees. They turned the Tahoe on and off and cracked the windows to try not to inhale too much carbon monoxide. They played Harry Potter trivia, Marvel trivia and tried to stay calm. But they grew increasingly frustrated.
“The only time we ever saw anybody official was a fire and rescue crew,” Travis said. “But I just think they were trying to find somebody because they weren’t walking up to cars asking if we were OK. We never saw police cars. We never saw state troopers.”
Travis eventually saw a message on Twitter from Gov. Ralph Northam that said help was coming.
“Nobody’s helping us,” Travis said. “We are stuck and how are you going to get people to us?”
The family was at a standstill on I-95 from about 1:30 a.m. to about 9 a.m.
“And then finally plow crews were coming out, and they were getting stuck on the road with us because they couldn’t get around all of the broken down cars,” Travis said. “And then other cars would come up behind the plow truck so that they could follow behind them.”
After fleeing I-95, the family was soon stuck again, this time on Route 17.
“They basically shuffled all of these cars off the highway and now have congested all the side roads,” Travis said. “The side roads haven’t been plowed. There are trees down, powerlines down. Cars are skidding.”
Travis added: “Why weren’t the roads salted? (Gov. Northam) knew that a snow storm was coming. You knew that historically Virginia doesn’t do well. You have 15 days left in office and then you’re out. You are still responsible to your constituents.”
As she waited, Travis talked to the rental car company about having to pay for another day. She coordinated with the family’s dog sitter about feeding their elderly cats and looking after their snake, which requires different types of light throughout the day.
One of their dogs, a Rhodesian ridgeback named Finn, has separation anxiety.
“And I know that when he sees me, we’re going to be attached at the hip for a week,” Travis said.
Eventually, the cars on Route 17 began to move. And the family charted a way north, “taking calculated risks with backroads.”
“I said about 1,000 Hail Marys because there were so many trees that were dangling from power lines,” Travis said.
They stopped at a firehouse to use the restroom for the first time and got some better driving directions. By 3:30 p.m., they were a little more than an hour from home.
They still hadn’t eaten.
“I’ve seen cows. I’ve seen horses. No grocery stores yet,” Travis said. “We’re just trying to drive as fast and as safely as we can to get home and just eat something.”