Stabilization of the landslide below Ghost Town in Maggie Valley will begin in two weeks, finally bringing comfort to downslope residents who have lived below the looming threat of another slide for half a year.
The slide last February scoured nearly a mile-long path down the mountainside with a wall of debris 30-feet high and 90-feet wide in places. Only three homes were damaged, but several others suffered destruction to their yards.
The slide initially forced an evacuation of a couple of dozen homes for fear more of the mountainside might collapse. To date, all but one homeowner, whose home suffered the most damage, has returned.
The $1.37 million job will take five months and was awarded this week to Phillips and Jordan, a construction company that specializes in major earth moving. The same company did the rockslide cleanup and stabilization on Interstate 40 last winter.
In addition to recontouring and shoring up the mountainside, the job includes road repairs and returning a dislocated creek to its original course down the mountain.
Al Hill, a seasonal resident with a second home below the slide, said he is pleased stabilization work will be done before the worst of winter. The freeze-thaw cycle can exacerbate erosion and act as a trigger for more landslides.
Engineers and slide specialists who have inspected the site cautioned that the slope remains unstable and another slide is still not out of the question. In fact, a slide could be triggered in the process of stabilizing the slope if the contractor isn’t careful.
As a result, a geotechnical engineer will work on-site each day with the Phillips and Jordan crew.
“It is extraordinarily sensitive,” said Randy Hintz, project manager with McGill Associates, an engineering and planning firm in Asheville overseeing the contract.
The geotech engineer will dictate the final outcome, but not necessarily the approach.
“There is a fine line in telling the contractor how to do his job,” Hintz said. “We tell them how the slope needs to be, and they figure out how to make that happen.”
If things start to look dicey, it might be necessary to send an alert to homeowners to leave the area, Hintz said. The engineer will not always be able to predict how the unstable slope will respond to a particular strategy when the contractors begin moving dirt.
Landslide experts and engineers believe the slide was triggered by a collapsed retaining wall on Ghost Town’s property. Ghost Town had struggled to shore up the unstable and nearly vertical slope on and off over the years.
When the mountaintop was leveled off to make way for the amusement park in the 1960s, loose dirt was pushed over the side of the mountain without being properly compacted. It must now be peeled back to reveal the original contour and compacted as it is put back. Portions of the slope, especially at the top, will be permanently recontoured at a gentler grade that mirrors the original mountainside, Hintz said.
Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver originally objected to the stabilization plan and demanded an alternative design, but he did not get the engineering specifications done in time to go out to bid. Shiver said he is simply pleased work is getting underway.
“I am extremely happy,” Shiver said after the contract was awarded.
The total project, including engineering, will cost $1.47 million. Federal and state taxpayers will foot most of the bill. Maggie Valley taxpayers will contribute $25,000, and Ghost Town has pledged to contribute $25,000 as well.
Ghost Town has been in bankruptcy the past 18 months. Time is running out for the amusement park, which is being threatened with both foreclosure and liquidation. But Shiver remains hopeful a loan will come through allowing the park’s principal owner to regain title.
Meanwhile, Ray and Cookie Dye are tired of looking at a mud-filled pond that was buried when the slide moved across their yard. They want the pond dug out and their landscaping repaired, but it’s not clear who is accountable.
“We can’t prove it is [Ghost Town’s] fault,” Cookie Dye said.
Town Manager Tim Barth said town crews would try to dig out their pond for them.