December 14, 2007

Another Structural Failure Highlighted by the Snowstorm

Carroll Andrew Morse

Ian Donnis of the Providence Phoenix

"Mid-afternoon, when it became clear that the situation was not resolving itself," is when the EOC should have been triggered, [Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts] says.

Asked who was running the state, she says it appears to have been a team of Brian Stern, Governor Carcieri's chief of staff, and Jerome Williams, head of the state Department of Transportation.

…and Michael McKinney of the Projo
The Rhode Island National Guard commander said today the Providence Emergency Management Agency was in control during yesterday's storm -- a storm that he said did not warrant a "multi-jurisdictional event" that would have activated the state Emergency Operations Center.

Major Gen. Robert T. Bray, the guard's adjutant general, said the operations center has been triggered for hurricanes and severe flooding -- and the yearly Tall Ships celebration, when hundreds of old sailing ships come to Newport drawing thousands to Aquidneck Island.

Saying that the traffic problem was confined to Greater Providence, Bray said "statewide, the emergency was well handled," which is why, he said, the EOC was not triggered.

Governor Carcieri's chief of staff, Brian Stern, said at the same State House news conference attended by Bray and Col. Brendan Doherty, who leads state police, that it was an "unprecedented traffic disaster."

…have been reporting today on the chain of command issues that arose in Governor Carcieri's absence (he was out of the country) during Thursday's snowstorm that may have contributed, at least at the state level, to the poor emergency response.

Something I've yet to hear mentioned is how the confusion pretty clearly illustrated the folly of electing a Governor and Lieutenant Governor separately. The ineffectiveness of yesterday's response was rooted at least in part in multiple, politically unaccountable officials (Brian Stern, Jerome Williams, Robert Bray, for starters) all claiming to be a final authority when the Governor is not around. That was, and is, inadequate.

Unlike a President, a Governor doesn't have access to an Air Force jet that can get him home from anywhere in the world in a matter of hours, so there will be times when a Governor will be away from the state for a day or more, yet decisions will still have to be made by a legitimate authority near an emergency situation. The Governor's Chief of Staff has no authority to give orders to the National Guard or the State Police that must be followed, yet in the American system of governance, the head of the State Police or the National Guard is expected to be immediately answerable to a civilian authority.

The system would function much more smoothly in the Governor's absence if the heads of state agencies knew that the Lieutenant Governor was a trusted deputy who had specifically accepted the responsibility of speaking for the current Governor in circumstances where decision making could not be delayed.

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In a snow emergency, does it really matter whether the Gov. and Lt. Gov. are of the same party? We're not talking about a major policy dispute -- it's a question of putting a face on the State's response to the emergency and having someone to make quick decisions if necessary.

It seems to me that the Gov. ought to call on the Lt. Gov. in such a situation, even if they are of opposite parties.

I don't understand why the Carcieri folks would freeze Lt. Gov. Roberts.

Posted by: brassband at December 14, 2007 9:06 PM

Something tells me that if Reg had been elected Lt. Gov yesterday would have played out very differently.

Posted by: Greg at December 14, 2007 10:05 PM


Please do share with us the special talents that Elizabeth Roberts possesses which would have made her a valued player and difference maker on Thursday? As we saw yesterday she's very quick on her feet when covering her own a** and assigning blame to others. Any other talents we should know about with Miz Liz? Her behavior throughout this 'small' event sure has been lacking in the genuine leadership department.
Let me remind one and all that despite the over the top and at times downright embarrassing media hype in the coverage this event we're not talking Hurricane Katrina here. lol
Snowstorms with rush hour traffic cause gridlock. Snowstorms with rush hour traffic and 18 wheelers jack-knifed at Thurbers Ave really cause gridlock.
Roberts would have done what to ease the situation?
Call out the National Guard?
To do what?
Sit in gridlock?
Or perhaps Liz would have called on the 82nd airborne division to parachute in with their shovels? lol
Guess what happens when heavy snow hits heavy traffic. Gridlock happens and it takes time to break it up. By 10 pm Thursday night all the highways were moving well. The same day! To hear the media talk you'd think it was '78 all over again and search dogs were needed to save the stranded.
Give me a break!
As I said yesterday Providence needs to answer for those stranded schoolkids. That was truly outrageous and heads need to roll.
Let me also remind one and all that 90% of the state got on just fine throughout that storm.
Slowly but just fine.
A little perspective please!

Posted by: Tim at December 15, 2007 7:38 AM

The point is that somebody has to be in charge.

My sense of one thing that went wrong here was that, with the Governor away, nobody was in charge.

Would things have been any different if the Gov. had picked up the phone, talked to the L.G., and said "Hey, Liz, I'm still in Iraq, could you head down to the emergency management center and do your best to coordinate things?"

That wouldn't have stopped the snow, or the goofy drivers who don't have a clue about how to manage in a storm, but it might have eliminated the concern that nobody was in charge.

And I completely agree that these things are blown way out of proportion by the RI-Boston media.

Posted by: brassband at December 15, 2007 7:49 AM

Not sure having a figurehead would have mattered in the least Brassband.
From the Hartford Courant
Boy does this sound familiar.

Rell Seeks Coordination In Weather-Related Business Closings

It Was A Perfect(ly Awful) Storm
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING | Capitol Bureau Chief
December 15, 2007

It was just about the worst scenario possible.

A major snowstorm and thousands of workers leaving their Hartford offices at the same time. Throw in some ice, scattered accidents, cars blocking the highway entrance ramps and very few plow trucks in sight and you have major traffic gridlock.

"All those factors came together in kind of a perfect storm of a traffic nightmare," said Judd Everhart, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. "It was a mess. The plow trucks are just as much in the gridlock as every other vehicle. They can't do their job."

Gov. M. Jodi Rell wants to prevent that scenario from happening again — announcing Friday that she is trying to create a coordinated release time with the 12 largest employers in Greater Hartford, which employ about 85,000 workers. Rell wrote letters to the chief executives of the 12 companies to prepare for the next time a storm occurs on a workday.

"It is critical that all of us — the state and private companies alike — coordinate our decisions when it comes to early dismissals," Rell said.

Rell's staff tried to contact major employers as the snow started flying Thursday morning, but some companies had not yet decided when to let their workers go. At the state Capitol complex, some employees of the legislature started heading out the door as early as 9:15 a.m. when they got the go-ahead from a supervisor. In staggered fashion, the legislative branch was dismissed at noon, the executive branch a half-hour later and then court employees at 1 p.m.

Motorists complained vehemently about massive delays and difficulty just getting to the highway entrances in Hartford. Sections of I-91 and I-84 in Hartford were closed at times. Cars were crawling as they tried to enter the backed-up I-84 near the State Armory in Hartford and near the under-construction science center near Hartford's downtown.

Rell's spokesman, Christopher Cooper, was stuck near the science center as two cars were blocking the I-84 entrance ramp and another was blocking the I-91 ramp near the same intersection.

"Those two cars [at I-84] were holding back about 1,000 cars in Hartford," Cooper said Friday. "I cannot fault the DOT under the situation — the quickness of the storm, the volume of snow and the accumulation, and the volume of traffic."

Still, anyone trying to enter I-84 near the armory at around noon found gridlock. Others found themselves in traffic for more than an hour as they simply tried to reach other entrance ramps in downtown Hartford.

And drivers in the rest of the state suffered too. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal needed 3 ½ hours to go from Hartford to his hometown of Greenwich. Others left Hartford only to get stuck on Route 9 in Middletown as traffic was brought to a standstill.

Between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., state police reported 161 accidents on the highways. Overall, the state DOT had nearly 1,500 employees and private contractors working on the snow operation, including supervisors, drivers and those loading trucks.

"It was a 100 percent full call-up of DOT personnel," said Cooper, a former DOT employee.

Both Cooper and Everhart said the DOT crews did the best they could under the circumstances: the timing of the storm and the quick-falling snow.

Rell herself was caught in a traffic jam on the way from Suffield back to Hartford.

A big problem Thursday was tractor-trailers stuck on the highways. No one had banned the big rigs as Gov. John G. Rowland did starting at 5 a.m. on March 5, 2001, when the state braced for one of the worst winter storms in nearly 40 years. That ban lasted until noon the following day and was roundly criticized by truckers. The move, however, was praised by others.

On Friday, Clarence Corbin, Hartford's director of public works, blamed the heavy traffic on the city's streets on the poor conditions on the highways.

"Once the highways backed up, we couldn't get people out of the city," Corbin said. "I think that is really what happened. It backed people up into the city of Hartford."

Once the traffic backs up on the main drags, Corbin said, he sends his trucks toward the city's secondary residential streets, since a city truck stuck in traffic does no one any good.

The city started its snow operation at 7 a.m. Thursday, preparing many, but not all, of the city's main arteries with salt.

"The heavy traffic came on too quickly for us to get a full deployment of all that material," Corbin said.

Some drivers who pick up the city's trash also drive its plows, meaning the city could not have a full force of snow fighters until all the trash was picked up Thursday morning. By the height of the storm, Corbin said, the city had a full fleet of 30 trucks on the street.

Courant Staff Writer Dan Goren contributed to this report.


Posted by: Tim at December 15, 2007 8:29 AM

In listening to the steady whine found on Matt Allen's show today was struck by the intellectual and psychological challenge facing the governor upon his return. Having just visited two the most dangerous (Iraq) and harshest (Afghanistan) places on earth what will the governor's reaction be when Rhode Island's mediots confront him over the 'horrors' of Thursday's snowstorm?
Can only hope he doesn't bust out laughing.
Or better yet maybe he should!

Posted by: Tim at December 15, 2007 12:21 PM

Storm Winners and Losers:

1. Scott Avedisian and the City of Warick. All of Warwick's schoolkids got home at a safe hour with no major problems and Avedisian didn't even need to be around to manage the effort. The system worked.

2. Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman. Instead of waiting for the Providence School Department to request his help to solve the problem, Esserman recognized the problem and proactively reached out to the School Department to offer his assistance. I wonder how much longer it would have taken kids to get home if Esserman didn't take the initiative. RI EMA should take note.

3. Frank Caprio. He finds a way to insert himself into the storm news by offering towing reimbursements. Self-promoting? Maybe, but how many times does a General Treasurer get positive coverage in stories about snowstorms?

1. Don Carcieri. He was out of the country again when a snowstorm hits, and his state directors didn't respond adequately. To make matters worse, NBC replays the episode of The Tonight Show where Jay Leno takes a crack at the Gov. for being out of state during a snowstorm.

2. Liz Roberts. The attempt to place all the blame on Carcieri only highlights the fact that she didn't do anything.

3. David Cicilline. Something went horribly wrong with Providence EMA and the school department. Cicilline eventually took control of the situation, but he was reactive, not proactive.

4. Jerome Williams. Yes, other states had some problems. Yes, there was a lot of bad driving. Yes, there were alot of people hitting the road at the same tim. But enough of the excuses. No other states had kids stranded on school buses for hours on end. While other states complain about gridlock, the reality is that their "gridlock" was nowhere near as bad as RI's given the relative size and number of people.

If the number of people on the road were interfering with RI DOT activities, why weren't the road billboards giving advisories and why wasn't a plan made public by radio and TV? Here's a thought. How about telling people who work at even numbered addresses to go home during one time period and those working at odd numbered addresses to go home at a different hour?

5. Leo Messier. Providence EMA director turned down offers of National Guard assistance because he apparenlty had no clue that dozens of Providence school buses were stranded. He later talks about it being an "inconvenience" and all the kids would get get home "eventually".

6. Robert Bray. The state's top National Guard officer says that "statewide, the emergency was well-handled" and the problems only occurred in "greater Proivdence". Hello, Rhode Island IS "greater Providence"!

I suppose you could say the same thing about Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was handled well throughout the state of Louisiana, most of the problems were limited only to greater New Orleans.

Maybe there weren't problem in other areas because half of the state's population was stuck in traffic "in and around" Providence.

7. Robert Warren. RI EMA director didn't understand the severity of the storm and was reactive. EMA exists for the sole purpose of managing emergencies. They have no other job and should have been better prepared. If EMA gets activated for the Tall Ships and street flooding, it's difficult to argue that it shouldn't have been activated during the snowstorm.

8. Donnie Evans. The opening comment on the Providence School Dept. website is "the health and safety of our students and staff are top priorities". I'd hate to see what happens to things that are lower priorities.


The Average Rhode Islander. The average Rhode Islander spent hours in traffic when the taxpayer funded agencies couldn't clear roads. The average Rhode Islander paid for brand new EMA communications equipment that was never utilized. The average Rhode Islander had their school kids coming home at all times of day and night. The average Rhode Islander now has to put up with the finger-pointing and excuses of their leaders.

Posted by: Anthony at December 15, 2007 1:08 PM


Possible for you to pull together a list of Massachusetts and Connecticut winners and losers? With the exception of Providence and their school bus fiasco all three states with different governors different DOT setups and different political dynamics all had the exact same problems handling this horrible human catastrophe ...err midday December snowstorm.
Couldn't have been the weather conditions in all three states could it?
Nah! Just creepy synergy I guess.

Posted by: Tim at December 15, 2007 1:47 PM

The underlying theme of all of this is that we expect the government to do everything for us.

Yes, they have to plow the roads, and they have to get the public school bus situation straightened out, but do they have to tell us when it makes sense to head home early from work?

Do we need them to tell us that you can't drive up an icy hill in a rear-wheel drive vehicle?

Posted by: brassband at December 15, 2007 3:00 PM

The fact that Roberts was completely rendered useless is a problem. If the Gov. and Lt. Gov. are going to continue to be voted upon separately, then please let's get the language back in the constitution that if the Gov. is out of the state, the Lt. Gov. can make the call. I don't care a bout partisan politics. What if this had been a life threatening emergency? What then? It's silly that no one was in charge of the state at this time.....

But what's worse is how poorly Mayor Cicilline handled the situation. There is no reason, I mean zero reason, why he could not have acted more swiftly during the storm. Cops should have been averted and put on traffic duty to keep the flow moving. I stood at kennedy plaza for a long time and there were 4 officers snuggled inside the bus station heehawing while people were freezing outside waiting for buses that came hours late and had no one to ask questions to but these four characters. To me, there's plenty of blame to go around. Yes, the Governor should not have cast Roberts aside. There are things way more important than partisanship. And yes, the mayor of Providence should have had the city much more prepared to handle the snowstorm.

Both failed. There's another storm tonight, so get it right!

Posted by: donroach at December 16, 2007 12:00 AM


Governors of both Massachusetts and Connecticut were in their states and 'leading' their government responses to the storm. The scene in Massachusetts has been described as a 'fiasco' and in Connecticut a 'nightmare'. If only Miz Liz Roberts had been available to help Gov. Rell and Gov. Patrick eh? lol
The great urban myth being promoted by the Rhode Island Mediots is that nobody was in charge around here and that's why we had our own local gridlock debacle.
Pure folly!
Was all about bad weather coupling with an early and unexpectedly heavy rush hour.


Spot on! In the age of instant communication via cell phones and continual radio traffic reports all day and into the night was inexcusable for anyone to have gotten on a roadway heading towards/out of Providence after 2pm.
As stated earlier coworkers of mine living on the East Bay avoided their usual 195 to 24 route home and went from Cranston via Newport. Made it home just fine and didn't need a government official to figure things out for them. Btw highly amusing to see where WPRO's Dan Yorke fits into this category of a do as I say not as I do idiot. Yorke was stuck in slow traffic coming in from Western Massachusetts and when his show started at 2 pm he still wasn't in the state. Once finally in Rhode Island instead of going home to Cumberland he heads down 146 south to 95 trying to get to E Prov and his show. Was no need since Matt Allen was doing the show. WPRO had it covered. People like Yorke were exactly the problem. He knew how bad the roads were and he went anyway.
Welcome to gridlock!


You state 'Rhode Island IS greater Providence'? Uh no! You've got to get out and about more often Anthony. lol
To most Rhode Islanders Providence is a foreign country that we subsidize. A place we occassionally drive by on our way to other places we'd rather be.

Posted by: Tim at December 16, 2007 7:24 AM

Right Tim. Providence is the progressive, pervert's paradise, Third World sewer the rest of the state does NOT want to become.

Posted by: Mike at December 16, 2007 10:54 AM

I doubt image-conscious, politically-connected businesses like GTECH and the Capital Grille would set up shop in a "Third World pervert's paradise."
Unless their owners and managers are subsidizing the perversion (LOL).

Posted by: rhody at December 16, 2007 4:33 PM

In retrospect, I really don't understant why there is such a rush to criticize Lt. Gov. Roberts.

A snow storm, gridlock, children stuck on buses... WHAT DO ANY OF THESE THINGS HAVE TO DO WITH STEM CELL RESEARCH?

Posted by: George at December 16, 2007 7:29 PM


"Scott Avedisian and the City of Warick. All of Warwick's schoolkids got home at a safe hour with no major problems"

Winner? Come on! that's break-even at best. That's what is supposed to happen! If there hadn't been such a fiasco in Providence, nobody would be talking about school buses.

Posted by: George at December 16, 2007 7:33 PM

I acknowleged that other states had their problems. But I don't think people in Connecticut care about Rhode Island's response or vice versa.

Think of it this way. If you own shares of Bank of America and the stock tanks, do you think it would be acceptable for the CEO of Bank of America to say "Well, the stock of Wachovia tanked, too, so we're not alone".

No, if you're a shareholder, you'd want to know what Bank of America's CEO will do to fix BANK of AMERICA's problems. The same is true in this situation. You first have to recognize that there is a problem if you want to fix it.

Millions of tax dollars are spent on infrastructure, equipment and personnel to make sure that roads are kept clear and our kids get home safely and on time. Even our illustrious crossing guards are paid to make sure that the latter occurs. I don't believe it is unrealistic to hold government responsible when this doesn't occur.

RI EMA receives funding to respond to these types of incidents. No, the storm was not the Blizzard of '78, but it's not like EMA personnel are NFL referees with other jobs during the week, either.

When you pay EMA personnel as full-time state workers, you should expect a proactive response to incidents like these so that the situation does not worsen. Esserman had the right idea in Providence. His professional public safety background was evident.

And yes, drivers did stupid things. But usually public emergencies arise as the result of people doing stupid things. If the people of New Orleans evacuated when they were told to evacuate, Katrina would have had far less of an impact. But they didn't and so we spent large amounts of money to make sure government is prepared to respond.

As for Greater Providence essentially being the state, a majority of Rhode Islanders(appox. 548,512 of 1,048,319) live in Greater Providence (Providence, Cranston, East Providence, Warwick, North Providence, Pawtucket, Johnston and Central Falls).

Finally, a message to George. Yes you're right of course. Under stricter grading, maybe Avedisian would be "break even". But I graded him on a curve as compared to others. He got classified as a "winner" by default.

Posted by: Anthony at December 17, 2007 1:33 PM
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