To Close Or Not to Close Highways In A Winter Storm

Forecasters are calling it Nika – the latest major winter storm, now dumping snow on Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New England. In New York, ice spurred Governor Cuomo to take the major step of closing I-84, the highway that runs from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts.

Emergency Management consultant William Wagner speaks with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about how such decisions are made. Wagner is the president of Early Alert, an emergency management consulting group based in Florida.


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Well, yet another winter storm is dumping snow in the Northeast. In New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo even closed I-84. That's the highway that links Pennsylvania to Connecticut. So how is a decision like that, to close a major highway, made?

William Wagner is president of Early Alert. That's an emergency management consulting group based in the Florida Keys. And, William, what's the upside of closing down the highway?

WILLIAM WAGNER: Well, the upside is obviously safety. They want to make sure people are safe driving the roads and don't get, primarily, stuck on a road or have a major accident. And the downside would be is when you do close the road, people may be stuck at work or kids stuck at school and can't get home. And, you know, those are driving factors. And also, the resources - do they have enough resources to keep the road open, you know, with plows or ice or sand, whatever it takes to make it safe. If they're going to close a major road, it's really a serious situation, and they need to do it.

HOBSON: But it did happen last time in the state of Massachusetts a year ago. During the storm they called Nemo, it was the first travel ban on roads in the state since the blizzard of '78. And now, it's already happening again in New York State. Is this something that's becoming more popular, that people say, you know, what, the upsides to closing the roads are better than the downsides.

WAGNER: Well, I don't know if that's the, really, the driving factor. I think in this situation that's recently just happening, we have, you know, storms back-to-back. We have a very busy winter weather season here. Again, I think it's more of a safety issue than worrying about, you know, what happened in the past.

HOBSON: Well, and this, of course, comes on the heels of what we just saw down in Atlanta where they probably would have been happier if the roads had been closed for that storm.

WAGNER: Yeah. I mean, that - in Atlanta, you know, you look at Atlanta, and they only have a few snow events every couple years as opposed to something in, say, New York or Massachusetts. So they don't have the resources to handle two inches of snow where in New York, that's nothing for them. And then everybody is trying to get home at the end of the day for, not only from work, but they also want to get home because they know the snow is going to cause a major issue. It just was a recipe for its own little disaster because everything happened at the same time.

HOBSON: So you don't think they should have closed the highways.

WAGNER: In Atlanta?


WAGNER: Well, it's not easy to close the highways because once you close the major highway, people are still going to try to get home, so they're going to use other highways. So that the best thing is, is not to close a interstate highway, unless it's absolutely necessary for safety measures.

HOBSON: Of course, we should mention that you are in the Florida Keys. So what do you care?

WAGNER: That's true. That's true.

HOBSON: What are the low temperatures tonight in the Keys?

WAGNER: Oh, I know it's going to break your heart, but it's dipping down - or I should say plummeting into the low 70s.


HOBSON: OK. William Wagner, president and COO of Early Alert, that's an emergency management consulting group based, as we said, in the beautiful Florida Keys. Thanks so much.

WAGNER: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: So unfair, Robin. So unfair.


HOBSON: The low 70s.


You know what's unfair is that in some parts of Florida, it's like 10.


HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.