Winter storm, ill-prepared travelers, highway closures leave Lake Tahoe drivers stuck for hours

Cars line up on U.S. 50 in Meyers.

Winter storms and ensuing traffic snarls are nothing new at Lake Tahoe, but this past weekend was far from typical.

By some accounts, the combination of a post-holiday exodus, blizzard conditions, ill-prepared drivers and highway closures created an especially chaotic and frustrating experience on area highways.

Social media was flooded with angry and perplexed posts about the paralyzed roads.

“Personally ranking it, it’s got to be one of if not the worst days we’ve had in terms of trying to get people out of there,” said Steve Nelson, public information officer for Caltrans District 3.

“People were getting frustrated,” commented Officer Jeff Gartner with the California Highway Patrol.

The trouble started setting in late Sunday morning as the second of two winter storms began dumping snow on top of roughly a foot delivered by the first storm. By the time it was done some ski resorts reported an additional 2 feet of snow from the second storm.

The National Weather Service in Reno observed maximum ridgetop winds just shy of 150 mph.

At 1:24 p.m. Sunday, officials closed Interstate 80 due to whiteout conditions on Donner Pass. The eastbound lanes did not reopen until 6:45 a.m. Monday. The westbound lanes reopened less than two hours after the eastbound lanes.

I-80’s closure diverted drivers south to U.S. 50, pumping more cars and people onto already crowded roadways five days after the New Year’s holiday.

At 3:32 p.m. officials starting holding traffic on U.S. 50 due to multiple crashes on both sides of Echo Summit, according to Nelson. Avalanche control measures were then conducted around the summit in order to prevent a slide.

Cars did not start moving until 8:07 p.m. when officials started releasing 50 vehicles at a time. U.S. 50 did not completely reopen until 8:55 p.m.

Traffic heading out of town was still bumper-to-bumper on U.S. 50 in Meyers Monday.

The issues highlighted what Gartner described as a lack of preparedness by many of the people on the roads — not having the right tires, not having chains, not having the essentials needed for long waits.

“It was very busy. I think a majority of people would probably say that we saw a … lack of preparedness for this one.”

Those issues were compounded, Gartner added, by crashes and road closures elsewhere.

“As far as storm-wise it’s definitely not the worst storm we’ve ever seen, as far as traffic-wise … that part was a mess,” Gartner said.

CHP and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office responded to a handful of verbal arguments stemming from the traffic backup.

“Tempers did start getting a little hot just because people were in their cars for six to 12 hours,” Gartner said.

People need to be prepared, said Nelson. There is no reason to be uninformed about approaching winter storms and road conditions. He recommended using the Caltrans online quickmap or downloading the free quickmap app to stay up to date on road conditions.

“There’s plenty of information out there,” Nelson said.

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