Life on the rock

Workers on the rockslide slope are laboring around the clock. There’s a day crew and a night crew, ranging from 15 to 25 men per shift. They labor for 10 hours at a stretch on the side of a steep, towering rock face.

“If you need anything you take it up with you. They don’t come back down,” said Mike Patton, the lead DOT inspector on the site.

That goes not just for food, but using the bathroom, too.

“Once you get up there it is every man for himself,” Patton said.

During the first two months, when work primarily focused on busting up and hauling off the major pile of boulders at the base of the slide, there were dozens of equipment operators and dump truck drivers coming and going to the site. Workers would often call in a massive order of hamburgers to a diner in Hartford, Tenn., and a woman who worked there would deliver them. One entrepreneuer set up a Philly Cheese Steak concession stand near the worksite and became known as Hotdog Willie. He even made a turkey dinner for workers laboring on Thanksgiving Day.

But once the pile was carted away and work shifted to the mountainside overhead, there weren’t enough workers on the ground to support the hot lunch spot and he closed up shop, although his stand is still parked at the staging area.

Now, the remaining ground crews, as well as those on the slope, must pack sandwiches and sundry snacks to sustain themselves during the long work days and cold, dark nights in the remote Pigeon River Gorge.

Staying warm is a challenge in the shadow of the tall, narrow walls of the gorge, which block the sun for all but the middle part of the day. Shane Cook, a worker for the main contractor on the job, Phillips and Jordan, knows exactly what time the sun crests the ridge and the first patch of pavement where it hits.

“About 9 o’clock in the morning it comes across that ridge and about 2:30 it goes behind that one, so you don’t get but about 5 hours,” Cook said.

Ground crews and inspectors sometimes pack into the contractor’s trailers for quick warm ups during the day, but mostly resort to climbing in and out of their trucks and blasting the heater to dethaw. Needless to say, they call come to work with a full tank of gas. Some on the night shift bring an extra five gallon gas can.

They wear extra pants, two pairs of gloves, fleece caps with ear flaps under their hardhats and bring an extra pair of socks to change into in case the ones they have get wet.

But those high above on the rock have no truck to climb into to stay warm and can’t work when too encumberd by layers. During the worst of Janurary’s extreme cold, when lows dipped into single digits repeatedly night after night, work was suspended.

Another rockslide struck along the already closed section of Interstate 40 over the weekend.

The new slide is nothing like the earlier one, but big enough in its own right. It covered both westbound lanes just past exit 7 at Harmon Den. It brought down an estimated 500 cubic yards of rock — the equivalent of about 50 dump truck loads. The pile in the road is about 40 feet long and 50 feet wide, with the largest rocks the size of SUVs.

While the Interstate was already blocked to through traffic, it is still used 24-7 by workers coming and going to the larger slide repair. Luckily the new slide didn’t hurt anyone. It was discovered at 1 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23, by a construction supervisor for Phillips & Jordan, the head contractor over repairs on the larger slide.

The clean up may take as little as three weeks. Additional crews will be brought in, so repairs to the smaller slide should not extend the closure of I-40 any longer than it would be already.

Meanwhile, a rock slide on the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Spur in Tennessee also happened over the weekend. The slide only covered one side of the road. The unaffected lanes were set up to allow two-way traffic, with one lane in each direction.

In the first days following the rockslide on Interstate 40 last October, Jody Kuhne had the unenviable job of rappelling down the freshly scoured rock face and into a gaping chasm left in the mountainside.

As the DOT’s resident expert on landslides, his mission was to figure out the nature of the problem and begin plotting a fix.

A giant slab the size of a five-story apartment building had sheered off the mountainside. Most of it fractured on impact creating an enormous pile of over-sized boulders. But a large wedge was lodged at the base of the mountain like a stubborn bookend. Unless Kuhne could rappel behind it — a six-foot-wide fissure called the back crack — he wouldn’t know exactly what kind of slide they were dealing with.

With surveying instruments stowed in his pack, Kuhne harnessed up and lowered down the rock face on ropes to measure the angle of the fault line that caused the slide. Combined with aerial photography, he generated a 3-D map of the remaining mountainside and soon realized they were dealing with a worst case scenario.

The rock slide was known as a “wedge failure,” except only the lower half of the wedge had broken lose.

Imagine an upside down pyramid superimposed on the rock face. The tip broke off and slid down the mountain, but the wide base was left behind and now loomed 250 to 400 feet above the workers on the ground. A fault line — the same fault line that caused the lower part to slide — ran in a large vein all the way up the mountainside.

That fault line lurking below the surface left the upper half of the mountain susceptible to a slide. It was Kuhne’s job to figure out just how susceptible.

“If it came out to a certain factor of stability that was acceptable to us, we’d walk away. But it didn’t. It is on the borderline of stability,” Kuhne said.

Ideally, they could blast away what remained of the giant wedge to eliminate the looming threat.

“We tried that, but it was time consuming, expensive and extremely dangerous,” Kuhne said.

Short of a bombing run by the U.S. Air Force, that strategy seemed impossible.

“To get up there and start drilling and blasting, you risk a catastrophic failure of the whole thing. It would certainly kill anyone on it, around it or in front of it,” said Mike Patton, the lead DOT inspector on the slide site.

So if the mountain couldn’t be brought down, at least not until gravity was ready, Kuhne had to figure out how to stop gravity from eventually getting its way. The answer was bolts. Lots of them.

Theoretically, bolts drilled deep below the vein of weakness would apply enough torque to hold the mountainside in place.

“It has to be anchored below the failure plane and basically snug that thing to the slope,” Kuhne said.

Based on his modeling, Kuhne could calculate how deep the fault plane was. Along the outer edges, it ran about 40 feet below the surface. But in the center — the thickest part of the wedge — it was some 120 feet down.

Based on the force each bolt conveyed and the mass of the wedge being held in place, Kuhne came up with 590 bolts. They would be spaced every 10 feet creating a giant grid on the mountainside. Kuhne likens it to a blanket of force battening down the rock face.

The sheer number of bolts combined with the depth of the holes mean 9.5 miles of holes have to be drilled.

It took eight weeks to blast apart and haul away to pile of boulders created by the slide.

“If that was all we were facing we would be done and open right now,” Kuhne said.

But the process of drilling holes and anchoring giant bolts into the mountainside has proved time consuming, further hampered by snow, ice and record cold.

There are currently five drill rigs on the side of the mountain, each one about the size of a go-cart. The drill shafts come in five-foot sections. Every five feet, the operator has to stop and screw on another length of shaft as it bores deeper and deeper.

 

Installing the bolts

So far, nearly a third of the 590 holes have been drilled. This week, the first bolts will be installed, no easy task given their enormous length.

A helicopter will hover overhead suspending the bolts while men on the slope maneuver them into place and feed each one into its hole.

Since the holes vary in depth, each one is numbered. The bolts have a tag with a corresponding number — a piece of duct tape marked with a black Sharpie.

The bolts are only 1.5 inches in diameter, but the holes being drilled are roughly 3.5 inches. The space around the bolts will be filled with grout.

The job will take a lot of grout, about two tractor-trailer loads. Water to mix with the grout will be pumped from a stream cascading down the mountain near the slope. Pipes will carry the water overland to a giant holding tank at the top of the slope. The holding tank has a heater to warm the water up to 50 degrees before it can be mixed with the grout, Patton said.

Getting grout into the deep but narrow gap around the bolt is another challenge. Long tubes duct taped along the length of the bolts will carry grout pumped to the bottom of the hole.

“You are filling the hole up from the bottom up,” Patton said.

The bolt has a flexible plastic ring every 10 feet to serve as a spacer and keep it centered in the hole as grout fills up around it.

Further complicating the process, each bolt had to be cased in a large plastic sheath. Inside the sheath, the bolt is caked with grease. The bolt will stretch as it is tightened down, and the greased-coated sheath will allow the necessary movement without breaking the bolt.

“You put these thing under so much stress that, believe it or not, we will stretch that bolt about four inches,” Patton said.

Each bolt will be subjected to a force of 7,000 PSI (pounds per square inch) using a giant hydraulic jack to pull it tight.

Finally, a plate about seven inches in diameter will cap the bolt.

Given the roughly 400 holes left to drill, and all but 10 of the 590 bolts still to install, including five days to let grout dry in each hole before the bolts can be stretched and capped, it is optimistic to assume the DOT can meet its self-imposed deadline of getting the Interstate open again by the end of March. But Patton said that’s still the plan.

“When things really get rolling, that is not necessarily going to be impossible,” Patton said.

Hang-ups are inevitable, however, and not just from the weather. The contractor hoped to fire up additional drilling rigs on the slope, but for the past three weeks, crews have been waiting on an order of extra drill shafts to arrive from Italy.

“All the Italians went on extended vacation at Christmas time,” Patton said.

As the lead DOT inspector on the slide, Patton is tasked with assessing whether the holes are drilled right, the bolts are installed right and whether each one carries the right load.

“Only 590 good bolts achieves the safety factor we are looking for so you have to make sure all 590 are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Patton said.

Only time will tell if the strategy will work. But one thing is certain: without the bolts, the upper half of the mountain would be a ticking time bomb given the past history of I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge.

“Considering we get these every 10 years periodically and have had dozens since this was constructed, it will slide sooner than a million years,” Kuhne said. “If this decides to fail while we are standing here it will take about 10 seconds for it all to be in the road, and we will stand here and watch it all happen.”

The highly technical and extremely dangerous work to stabilize the rockslide is being carried out by Janod, a Canadian company. A leading expert in rock stabilization, they get called in by mines, quarries, railroads and highway departments to shore up volatile mountainsides.

Janod brought along a team of employees from all over the world. But they have hired some locals — including two young men from the Fines Creek area of Haywood County — and are still looking. The top requirement other than no fear of heights?

“You have to be able to physically climb that thing everyday. Unless the guy is a real go-getter, the first week here is going to be rough,” said Mike Patton, the lead DOT inspector on the site.

The upper staging platform is 400 feet up, and the steep hand-over-hand climb is hard work.

“Ropes assist you almost all the way to the top. Without them you would be on your hands and knees. The rope also gives you something to hold onto so if you slip you don’t start tumbling down,” Patton said.

Once on the slope, cables run back and forth for workers to shimmy along.

“There is a safety net that is strung all the way across the thing so if someone were to fall and you can’t get ahold of a stump you are going to get tangled up in that net,” Patton said.

On steeper sections, workers wear harnesses tied off to anchors and cables as they move about.

Getting equipment and supplies up the slope is another story. Some equipment is ferried up in a large cage with a system of cables and winches.

But heavier things require a helicopter. The drill rigs are the size of a go-cart and grout pumps are the size of a big pick-up. There’s massive light poles for working at night, bundles of steel drill shafts and pallets of grout — all of which had to be airlifted onto the slope.

Several staging areas and platforms were built on the slope as a repository for equipment. Ultimately, however, the crews have to muscle the supplies to the exact spot where they’re needed. When the bolts are installed, for example, they’ll be tightened down with a giant hydraulic jack.

“That weighs about 300 pounds, which these poor guys will have to manhandle around on the slopes,” Patton said.

In the final stages of the job, workers will have to tackle drilling and bolt installation on a verticle rock face. They will rappell into place with their equipment rigs suspended from platforms.

“Almost like a window washer on a sky rise — something like that is what I envision,” Patton said.

As the site inspector, Patton has to go where ever the workers go, even if it’s over the side of the mountain. So the DOT sent him to a crash course on rock climbing.

“The first time I did it, I felt like Spiderman in a way,” Patton said. “The first time you lean backwards over a straight sheer drop, it’s tough. You have to learn to trust the rope.”

Janod is working under a $6.2 million subcontract from Phillips and Jordan, the prime contractor on the job. Phillips and Jordan had a total contract of $9.2 million for the slide clean-up, a price that is bound to climb higher, however, due to weather and unforeseen additions.

As the prime contractor, Phillips and Jordan is reponsible for bringing the project to the finish line, and all the myriad details along the way. During blasting, for example, Phillips and Jordan set up seismograph equipment to monitor the tremors. If they were too strong, it could rupture nearby pipes that carry water from the Pigeon River dam to the Waterville hydropower plant.

Phillips and Jordan also employed spotters to simply keep watch around the perimeter for things that might go wrong. As blast technicians were preparing to set a charge one day, one looked over the road side into the Pigeon River below and saw a group of kayakers in the water. Debris from the blasts has been known to fly across the road and down the banks into the river, shearing off tree tops as it goes. The blast was halted in the nick of time.

Canton aldermen are embarking on an ambitious quest to identify long-term goals and strategies that will shape the town in years to come.

“You’ve got to have a plan, and this is the plan for the future of Canton,” said Alderman Ed Underwood.

Each alderman came up with their own list of priorities for the town. They brought those lists to the table at a meeting on Tuesday (Jan.12).

At the outset, it seems all five town leaders meet eye-to-eye on most of their priorities. The top priority appears to be upgrading the sewer line to accommodate commercial development around the I-40 interchange at exit 31 and along Champion Drive. For now, the heavily used sewer line is hitting maximum capacity.

According to a 2008 estimate, the extensive sewer expansion project would cost about $1.2 million. The town has attempted landing grants but has yet to secure any.

Town leaders plan on meeting every Tuesday to discuss the nitty-gritty of each item now that they have a master list in tow. Other common threads between their lists include:

• Repairing the town swimming pool.

• Annexing West Canton and other areas if feasible.

• Eliminating potholes and pave streets/sidewalks.

• Economic development/promote downtown.

• Seeking grants where possible.

Mayor Pat Smathers already published his 17-point vision in a local newspaper prior to last year’s election, encouraging voters to choose candidates who would cooperate with him to implement his goals.

The unilateral move drew criticism from some candidates, who insisted that residents and other aldermen also have input in a long-term vision.

Shortly after the election, Smathers succumbed, asking aldermen to come up with their own wishlists.

A few of the aldermen came up with original ideas not found on any other list.

Flynn said he wanted the town to begin back tax collections and start tearing down condemned houses littered across town.

Currently, the Town of Canton partners with Haywood County to collect taxes. According to Flynn, those who have paid their county taxes, but fail to pay the town, fall off the radar.

Flynn suggests breaking off the county partnership to start collecting its own taxes.

“I know there are some that are perfectly capable of paying but don’t,” said Flynn. “Tax collections would take very little resources.”

Flynn also wants to develop a plan of attack for dealing with condemned houses, which downgrade the neighborhood’s property values.

“It’s just unsightly,” said Flynn. “It’s open to vermins [sic] and rats.”

Underwood came up with the idea of using prison crews for projects then discovered that the state program that loans inmates to municipalities has fallen by the wayside due to the statewide budget crunch.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has found a silver lining in the Interstate 40 closure following a massive rockslide in late October near the Tennessee line.

It is taking advantage of the months-long shut down by fast-tracking maintenance work already in the pipeline.

The N.C. DOT expects to spend a total of $4.5 million on routine maintenance along the corridor while contractors continue hauling away debris from the massive rockslide.

Transportation Secretary Gene Conti recently awarded a $2 million contract for a new concrete surface on the I-40 bridge over White Oak Road in Jonathan Creek.

The work is less costly now that contractors don’t have to work around a constant flow of traffic, according to Joel Setzer, DOT division engineer for 10 western counties.

“When the rockslide occurred, we immediately saw an opportunity,” said Setzer.

In all, DOT workers are tackling four bridge deck repairs, repaving three tunnels, and replacing all arrows and reflectors on the median walls.

They’re trimming trees, removing brush, mowing slopes and performing drainage maintenance.

N.C. DOT’s Geotech Unit is also inspecting other areas along the corridor that previously have had rockslides to check for potential problems. Setzer said the Geotech Unit has so far done only visual inspections, but it plans to further explore riskier areas by foot.

While the DOT had already commissioned workers to trim trees on all roads in Haywood County, they were all redirected to the I-40 corridor immediately after the rockslide.

State officials have not turned a blind eye to the economic pain caused by the rockslide in Western North Carolina, but Haywood Tourism Development Authority officials say their strategy is off the mark.

First off, the state’s tourism division is devoting $110,000 to a radio campaign in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas informing potential travelers they can still visit WNC despite the Interstate 40 closure.

The campaign was driven by a survey conducted by the state commerce department in the wake of the rockslide.

After polling 1,000 prospective travelers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Knoxville, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, state officials concluded that misconceptions about the road closure reigned in Raleigh and Charlotte.

“Unfortunately, that’s not our markets for this time of year,” Collins said. “I know innkeepers are concerned about the Florida market. They would like to see additional advertising [there].”

During the holiday season, Collins said most travelers to Haywood County hail from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.

According to the research, however, people in Raleigh and Charlotte seemed most likely to change their travel plans to avoid WNC, said Wit Tuttell, spokesman for the state Division of Tourism.

Tuttell said the state had to look at the entire region, not just Haywood County, even though the rockslide occured there.

“We have to represent everybody,” said Tuttell, adding that the state does help promote skiing in WNC, including at Cataloochee, with an annual $75,000 marketing campaign that targets the Southeast.

In partnership with the North Carolina Ski Association, the state funds television advertising in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.

From Thanksgiving until Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the radio campaign will direct listeners to the state Division of Tourism’s Web site for further information.

That Web site has already gotten 12,000 hits on its rockslide advisory page, which includes ample maps and directions.

“We know we’ve got people’s attention with that,” said Tuttell.

Meanwhile, Haywood’s TDA has dedicated $15,000 toward its own marketing campaign.

Part of that money helped the TDA buy Google Adwords for “Western North Carolina” and “rockslide” to direct Internet searchers to its Web site, which prominently displays multiple detours to the region.

 

Wrangling over signs

Haywood tourism officials are also miffed with the North Carolina Department of Transportation for not putting up more signs indicating that WNC is still open for business.

Collins said the TDA worked with N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, to coax the DOT to change its wording on electronic road signs. Signs initially warned drivers upon reaching Asheville that Interstate 40 was closed ahead and lured drivers to take a detour around WNC. New language was incorporated to list which exits were still open beyond Asheville

But since then, Collins has heard reports that that language isn’t consistently visible.

Reuben Moore, division operations engineer for DOT’s Division 14, which includes Haywood County, said the signs cycle through the messages, so drivers can miss part of it.

“If you miss the message the first time, you might get part of it the second time around,” said Moore. The letters are two feet tall, which allows people to begin reading the signs six seconds away.

Joel Setzer, division engineer for 10 western counties, said the DOT had to be careful not to direct truck traffic across the Great Smokies with the new signage.

“The DOT is trying to get out accurate information out that does not promote commercial and high volumes of traffic to U.S. 441 because that would be unsafe,” Setzer said.

Collins said even if the signs haven’t changed, she hopes the DOT will put up more signs that state WNC is open for business, ideally capturing the attention of drivers upon first entering the region as far out as Hendersonville on I-26 and Hickory on I-40.

After a slight increase in overnight visitors this fall following a dismal summer, Haywood County tourism officials are dreading November reports.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, at a town meeting in Maggie Valley last week.

Tourism businesses were dealt a double whammy in November, Collins said, with the Oct. 25 rockslide shutting down part of a major interstate near Tennessee and warmer weather preventing Cataloochee Ski Area from opening until the very end of November.

“Last year, Cataloochee opened Oct. 28,” said Collins. “A full month of skiers helped November last year.”

So far this fiscal year, Haywood has seen an overall 6 percent decline in overnight visitors.

Compared to last year, the county saw tourism revenues drop by 14 percent in July and 9 percent in August. But the TDA took in 4 percent more revenue in September and saw a 1 percent increase in October.

“The economy is easing a little bit,” said Ken Stahl, finance chairman of the TDA. “[But] it’s not where we’d like to see it.”

Stahl said the TDA has had several discussions with N.C. DOT on the rockslide cleanup process, which will take at least until March and possibly May to complete.

“We’re hoping that they’re going to be able to beat their estimates because of the economic impact,” said Stahl, adding that all sectors of the economy, not just tourism, have been impacted by the rockslide.

Small businesses struggling to pay bills after a rockslide shut down Interstate 40 now have the option of applying for federal low-interest loans.

The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering up to $2 million in assistance to each company that demonstrates a serious impact from the rockslide.

The road closure has led to emptier restaurants, truck stops and motels near I-40 in Haywood County.

Much of Western North Carolina is being affected since thru traffic, especially truck traffic, is being channeled away from the region.

Last week, a steady stream of small business owners, hoping to receive federal aid, headed to a temporary business recovery center set up by the SBA in Clyde.

“This is a great response,” said Gary Davisson, a loan officer with the SBA. “Word of mouth has been good.”

Over the course of three days, about 55 business owners from as far away as Cocke County, Tenn., consulted with SBA officials.

About 42 business owners decided to apply for a loan, with 36 representing Haywood alone. Four companies in Buncombe, one from Henderson, and one from Cocke County have also applied.

Most of these business owners represented motels, hotels, restaurants and convenience stores, but there were also electricians, construction contractors, towing companies, and heating and oil companies in the mix.

The disaster relief loans are open to small businesses in Haywood County and all contiguous counties. That includes Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson, Madison, Swain and Transylvania counties in North Carolina, and Cocke and Sevier counties in Tennessee.

But that doesn’t mean companies will be competing against each other over the loans, according to Davisson.

“There is no pool of money designated for this,” said Davisson, adding that each business that shows a need will receive financial assistance.

Still, only businesses that can demonstrate a direct impact from the rockslide will be granted a loan. Most businesses that apply will receive a response in three weeks, according to Davisson.

Business owners still have plenty of time to get their application together, as the deadline won’t roll around until Aug. 24, 2010.

The Interstate 40 rockslide cleanup could now take until May, according to Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation for the region.

At a Haywood County commissioners meeting on Monday, Setzer stated the cleanup could take between three to five more months.

Each month tacked on to the estimate translates to a tougher economic battle for businesses that rely heavily on thru traffic on I-40. The road closure also deters tourists accustomed to easy access to the region via the interstate.

While the rockslide is currently impacting ski season in Maggie Valley, critical spring season tourism across the region would also be affected if the cleanup takes as long as May.

N.C. DOT officials had hoped to reopen the 20-mile section of road near the Tennessee border by the end of January, according to initial estimates made when the rockslide occurred in late October.

Soon after, the estimate was revised to February.

It has been difficult for the DOT to pin down exactly how long the cleanup will take, since there is still so much uncertainty about the slope’s overall stability.

The DOT is monitoring the slope every three hours to ensure the safety of contractors, who are drilling and blasting apart boulders into smaller pieces to be hauled away.

Depending on the slope’s stability, or instability, DOT might have to remove up to 6 million tons in material, thereby lengthening the cleanup process.

“After any blast, if that mass up there moves, we can’t stop because we made that unstable,” said Setzer. “You can’t put a fence at the bottom to hold this kind of weight.”

For now, the rock mass has been more stable than expected, allowing the DOT to pursue a plan that includes rock bolts.

Once installed, the rock bolts will help secure the slope by holding together independent rock masses.

Although motels, restaurants and gas stations near the closed section of I-40 are suffering a drop in business, the rockslide has managed to bring work to a few local businesses.

According to Setzer, the DOT recently hired about 14 Haywood County trucks to haul away tons of debris to a local U.S. Forest Service site. The material will be used in future road repairs.

On Sunday, the biggest blast since work started in late October brought down 5,000 cubic yards of material — weighing the equivalent of more than 1,000 full-grown elephants, according to the DOT.

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