Lesson from Snowstorm: Take Personal Responsibility

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Photo: Traffic stalled on Interstate 81, VDOT Traffic Camera. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Transportation
Photo: Traffic stalled on Interstate 81, VDOT Traffic Camera. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Transportation

This past Sunday, Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee and North Carolina were hammered with an unseasonably early, autumn snowstorm.  The storm dumped more than 20 inches of snow in some places in less than 24 hours.  Though it may be said that such a large quantity of snow so early in December is unusual for this part of Appalachia, it cannot be said that the snowstorm was unexpected or that it caught the general public by surprise.

Nearly a full week in advance, meteorologists from the National Weather Service were sounding the alarm bells that motorists and residents of the region should expect to see massive snowfall accumulation late-Saturday through Sunday… and just like clockwork, they were right.

We’re living in fascinating times: People like to joke about how unreliable weather forecasters are, but just about every person with a smartphone has downloaded to said phone a weather app and these apps prove to be incredibly accurate, sometimes to the minutes.

Yet all of this technology at people’s fingertips and pinpoint accuracy in weather forecasting was not enough to keep thousands of motorists from being stranded along Interstates 40, 77, and 81 in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

In many areas along Interstate 81 in Virginia and Tennessee, motorists were stranded for more than six hours as more than a dozen tractor-trailers jackknifed in the slippery weather, creating traffic stoppages that lasted for several hours and parked cars in a snaking line through the Virginia mountains for more than twenty miles. The only solution to these blockages was to painstakingly remove the wrecked tractor-trailers and vehicles one by one.

In other areas such as Interstate 77, the heavy snow combined with unskilled drivers and mountainous highway created multiple accidents which again stopped thousands of motorists in their tracks for numerous hours.

I can fully appreciate how frustrating it must be to be held up inside an idling vehicle low on gas for half a day and I’m not about to pretend that every single one of these drivers “had no business being on the road”, unless you’ve worked in the healthcare industry, had a father dying of cancer in a distant city or a dispatcher telling you that you’ll be fired if you don’t make that delivery to Philadelphia by Sunday night, then you shouldn’t either.

With this being said, I noticed an interesting thing happening on social media through the day Sunday: Impatient motorists stalled in their vehicles taking to social media to cuss and berate the workers of VDOT, TDOT and NCDOT, as well as the State Police from all three states.

“You guys really dropped the ball on this one today…” Tweeted one person to VDOT’s Bristol account.

Another wrote, “After seeing the incompetence of their highway system, I’ll never again step foot in North Carolina.”

Others were quick to make cracks on law enforcement and highway workers whom they felt weren’t working fast enough.

I understand that much of these social media outbursts were nothing more than the result of impatience and frustration from anxious people who felt that they had been forgotten, but it also highlights something that I fear has been lost in our modern society: People need to take responsibility for themselves.

If you choose to set out on a road trip through the Appalachian Mountains knowing that two feet of snow are possible, after hearing the state police, local government, department of transportation, media, and weather service all in unison saying, “Stay off the roads and avoid travel unless it is an absolute emergency,” you have absolutely no right to criticize law enforcement or transportation officials when fifteen trucks jackknife and shut down the highway for hours — that’s a risk you assumed when you set out.

When you set out in a vehicle knowing snow is in the forecast, you are assuming a risk that you may be stranded for hours, you might get hungry, you may become cold and you could possibly even die.  And if this happens, it will not be the government’s fault, but yours and yours alone.

For centuries the people of Appalachia have celebrated personal responsibility and as we move deeper into the twenty-first century, it may be time that a few more people be introduced to this forgotten doctrine.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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