Rock slide hits area at peak of fall tourist season

When tons of dirt and rock came sliding down a Haywood County mountainside, it closed off 20 miles of a vital regional highway, opened a flood of concern for Western North Carolina's tourism industry and sent politicians scrambling for cleanup money.

Rockslide repercussions: The Oct. 25 rock slide in Haywood County that triggered the closure of a section of Interstate 40 has been felt far beyond Western North Carolina. The tons of rock and dirt fell just as the region's fall foliage display was reaching its height, causing tourism officials to scramble to be sure visitors knew the mountains were still accessible. Meanwhile, state and federal officials were seeking disaster funding to help pay for a cleanup that could cost as much as $10 million and take as long as four months. Courtesy of N.C. Department of Transportation

The rock slide hit about 2 a.m. on Oct. 25 near mile marker 2 of Interstate 40 close to the Tennessee state line. It occurred in the Pigeon River Gorge, where the highway was carved alongside the river between steep, rocky mountain faces. It's an area that's been prone to rock slides. Twelve years ago, a similar slide shut down a stretch of the highway here for six months.

State Department of Transportation officials said the slide is 150 feet high and 200 to 300 feet wide and will likely take about four months to fix. DOT officials estimate the cost at between $2 million and $10 million. As for the cause, they say they're looking at several possible factors, including tremors, as well as freezing and thawing of water in cracks in the mountainside.

The highway is now closed between exit 20 in North Carolina and exit 451 in Tennessee, a stretch that would normally see 25,000 vehicles per day. The recommended detour is to take I-26 from Asheville to I-81 at Johnson City, Tenn., then I-81 back to I-40 near Knoxville, Tenn. That route forces travelers 53 miles out of their way, DOT officials say, and increases costs to truckers, travel time and congestion, which could in turn force delays. Traffic around Asheville has already been heavier for motorists on I-40 and I-240.

Bob Miller, a spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, notes that travelers should be aware that U.S. 441 is not open to commercial vehicles, but regular motorists can use the route.

Highway officials have already begun breaking up some of the boulders on the highway, as well as stabilizing the area. The state DOT has hired Phillips & Jordan Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn., and Jonad Contractors of Champion, N.Y., to take away loose rock and begin installing a pulley system that will be used to haul drilling equipment up the mountainside. Construction crews also plan to build a ramp that will help get specialized equipment up the mountain.

State and federal politicians have also jumped into action. North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue declared the rock slide an emergency on Oct. 28 and visited the site with state Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti and Deputy Commerce Secretary Dale Carroll.

Perdue said the Commerce Department is already at work with local officials on a marketing campaign to help get word out that WNC is is still open to visitors. Local businesses depend on the autumn crush of tourists and their spending dollars.

And U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler last week got his colleagues in North Carolina and Tennessee together to request federal emergency funding to help pay for the cleanup. Shuler and Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee were planning to send a letter to Victor Mendez, the Federal Highway Administration administrator, to request money that's set aside for emergencies.

Shuler drove home the point that an open road is critical to the region's economy during high tourist season. While that work progresses, he noted there are plenty of alternative routes to get in and out of the region.

"Everyone's still open for business," he said.

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