Hundreds of motorists were left stranded in freezing temperatures on Interstate 95 in Virginia, some for more than 24 hours, after heavy snowfall led to multiple crashes and slowed emergency response.
The 40-mile traffic jam started building up the morning of Jan. 3 and wasn’t resolved until the following day.
In a segment about the pileup, Dana Perino, a co-host on Fox News’ “The Five,” claimed that a move by Virginia Democrats complicated the recovery effort.
“I talked to a state legislator there in Virginia. He pointed out to me that, in the last several years, many on the left made the decision that local sheriffs should not be allowed to have military-grade equipment,” Perino said. “Because they said that was a bad symbol, and that it was too militaristic and authoritarian. But imagine if they were still allowed to have the equipment that they had just a few years ago it probably would’ve come in very helpful today.”
The comment raised two questions: Did Virginia Democrats decide that local law enforcement shouldn’t get access to certain types of military equipment? And would the machinery have been helpful in recovery efforts on the snowy highway?
The short answer is that Democrats did put such a law on the books, but it’s not what hampered the recovery effort.
For the details, let’s dig in.
Law prohibits use of some military-grade equipment
Fox News told us that Perino was referring to HB 5049, which prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from acquiring or buying certain pieces of military equipment unless they are granted a waiver by the state’s Criminal Justice Services Board.
The list of equipment included weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles, combat aircraft, grenades, bayonets and armored mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs.
The law includes a way for sheriffs to seek an exemption in specific circumstances. It also doesn’t bar them from participating in the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, which offers surplus military property to participating state and federal law enforcement agencies, said Patrick Mackin, a spokesperson for the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages the program.
The legislation was introduced by Democratic Delegate Dan Helmer, a combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It passed a Democratic-controlled Assembly along party lines, and was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam on Nov. 18, 2020.
Some of the resistance to the law focused on MRAPs and their potential use as rescue vehicles.
But Craig Fugate, a disaster management expert in extreme weather events and consultant in emergency management at Indian River State College, told PolitiFact that the conditions on I-95 didn’t require MRAP vehicles.
“Since there were no mines or ambush threats in the snow emergency, military transport vehicles, which are not prohibited, would better fit the mission of rescuing stranded motorists.”
In any case, MRAPs can be purchased through the 1033 program, Mackin said, and Virginia’s law doesn’t prevent participating state-level law enforcement agencies from acquiring surplus military vehicles for road clearing, if they are available.
The equipment wouldn’t have been helpful in the recovery
State police and disaster management experts told PolitiFact that local sheriff’s agencies did not respond to stranded vehicles in the Jan. 3 traffic jam along Interstate 95, and that the types of equipment the law prohibits would not have been useful in clearing the snowy highway.
“Even before that legislation became law, the Virginia State Police had never purchased surplus military vehicles for use in interstate (highway) emergency response,” agency spokesperson Corinne Geller wrote in an email.
Other than helping state police and Virginia’s Department of Transportation block off highway exits, local sheriff’s agencies did not assist in recovery efforts, Geller said.
Why did recovery efforts take so long?
The multi-agency recovery operation took around 30 hours.
Virginia State Police and transportation officials said deteriorating road conditions, multiple jack-knifed tractor trailer accidents and congestion from disabled vehicles significantly complicated cleanup efforts.
In a phone call with reporters, Gov. Northam said that rainfall before the storm had washed away any chemicals or salt used to pretreat the roads.
“Then we had slushy snow that fell a lot faster than our snow plows could move it,” WTOP News reported Northam as saying. “And then, as night fell, the temperatures dropped below freezing. All those together created the perfect storm for what happened on I-95.”
Northam and other Virginia state leaders defended the decision to not call on the National Guard, explaining that deployment would have taken too long and may not have helped.
The Virginia Department of Transportation said it would investigate what might have gone wrong in the state’s response.
Perino claimed that a law passed by Virginia Democrats prevented local sheriffs from having military equipment that “would have come in very helpful” with recovery efforts in the I-95 traffic jam.
Virginia Democrats voted to pass such a law, but experts and state officials said that the prohibited equipment would not have helped clear roads any faster in the snowstorm, and that the law did not hamper recovery efforts.
In any case, agencies can seek exemptions to the law for special circumstances, or may be able to take advantage of a federal program to acquire surplus military gear.
We rate this claim False.
This fact check was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for this fact check here and more of their fact checks here.