More than three months have come and gone since a major mudslide crashed through Maggie Valley’s Rich Cove community, and slide victims are still wondering when a cleanup will finally begin.
Their properties are not much better off since the Feb. 5 landslide occurred, with enormous boulders, splintered trees and muddy debris still cluttering yards. Some residents with ruined drinking wells continue to suffer lack of access to water.
Then, there’s the 12,000 to 16,000 tons of loose material hanging over their heads at the top of the mountain.
For now, these homeowners have little recourse. Their homeowner’s insurance does not cover landslides, and Ghost Town amusement park — where the slide originated — is still mired in bankruptcy and had no liability insurance at the time of slide.
While a federal grant has been devoted to fix the dangerously unstable mountainside, no state or federal funds have been dedicated to repair homes and private property. The grant will do little to help residents whose driveways are busted, drinking wells ruined or homes rendered unlivable.
Many slide victims have flocked to town hall for the twice-monthly updates from Town Manager Tim Barth, but their questions seem to outnumber the answers currently available.
About 16 concerned citizens came to the latest meeting last Wednesday (May 5) when Barth informed them that a plan for stabilizing the mountain and cleaning up debris that threaten the nearby stream may be in place by next week.
Most of the $1.4 million project will be funded by a federal grant, while the Department of Transportation will fund much of the 25 percent local match, as the slide impacted state-maintained Rich Cove Road. The Town of Maggie Valley and Ghost Town have contributed $25,000 each toward that 25 percent match as well.
Resident Ike Isenhour said the residents in Rich Cove just don’t have the funds to chase Ghost Town with lawyers to receive compensation for the damage to their property.
“If you’re poor folk, and you’re living paycheck to paycheck, then you have no recourse,” said Isenhour.
Isenhour’s driveway on Landing Drive was taken out by the landslide, and though volunteers have installed a temporary fix, he’s now in need of a more permanent solution.
A few thousand dollars worth of gravel would be a mere drop in the bucket but would help his family immensely, Isenhour said.
Meanwhile, Isenhour’s neighbors still have no access to water, and have run a hose to a relative’s house nearby, where they often fill up bucketfuls of water to bring back home to flush their toilets. The situation has remained unchanged since the mudslide occurred, though warmer weather means the water running through the hose no longer freezes as it did this winter.
Barth responded that the federal Emergency Watershed Protection grant is not designed to do work on private property.
“Things like digging somebody a new well, I don’t believe would be a qualifying expense under this grant,” said Barth.
The solution may lie with private citizens once again. The Greater Maggie Valley Natural Disaster Team, which involves a slew of churches, businesses and private citizens devoted to helping those affected by natural disaster, helped slide victims in February and are exploring ways to continue assistance.
Erma Bond, assistant pastor at the Maggie Valley United Methodist Church and part of the disaster team, regularly attends the semi-monthly meetings at town hall.
Bond and her team have discussed the possibility of helping residents regain a water supply many times without yet coming to an agreement.
“If we helped the ones that had the water problem, then what are we going to do for the others?” said Bond.
It may be best to donate a collective disaster relief fund to the town to prioritize, Bond said.
Stabilization to begin soon
Two engineering firms have been commissioned for $125,000 using money from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection grant.
McGill Associates will coordinate stream restoration and debris removal, while Bunnell-Lammons, a geotechnical engineering firm based in Greenville, S.C., will determine how exactly to stabilize the slope.
Eager contractors have already begun contacting the companies expressing interest in taking on the work, but Barth said they must undergo a thorough vetting process to ensure they are qualified and experienced.
“Someone who has a small backhoe and a dump truck cannot go up and do this work,” said Barth.
State Geologist Rick Wooten said the earth continues to shift beneath Ghost Town in the Sky, a mountaintop amusement park where the slide originated from behind a series of terraced retaining walls.
On May 3, Wooten traveled to the top of the mountain once more to measure a scarp in the pavement. Wooten said his measurements show land there has moved down 4.8 inches vertically, and horizontal displacement has occurred as well — meaning the slope is moving both downward and outward.
Wooten is not alarmed by the slight creep, however.
“It’s nothing dramatic,” said Wooten.
With the rainy season upon us, however, Maggie Valley resident Deborah Reynolds asked Barth if any preventative actions could be taken before work officially begins to stabilize the mountain.
“Is there any type of measure they can go ahead with so that people can at least feel safe?” asked Reynolds.
“Someone needs to make sure they go up there every time it rains,” added Resident Denise Sutton.
Barth said the town might take action if rainfall exceeds five inches, but with the only road to the top of the mountain still largely impassable, it’d be difficult to do much work now.
Town steps in
The town hall meetings Barth conducts run fairly casually, with residents candidly discussing what they’ve read in the paper this week, expressing their ongoing concerns and asking questions informally. Many of the questions revolved around Ghost Town, which may emerge from bankruptcy soon with a new owner, Al Harper. (see story on page 6).
But Barth was unable to shed much light on Ghost Town’s plans.
“I wouldn’t know Mr. Harper if I ran into him,” Barth replied.
Residents were miffed at the lack of communication from Ghost Town.
“Nobody hasn’t come talk to us,” said resident Tammy Rich. “We haven’t seen a soul. We still don’t have any water.”
“He says they’re going to open in July,” said Resident Betty Miner. “What a laugh.”
Resident Jane Simpson asked if the town could prevent Ghost Town from opening until the stabilization is complete.
“I don’t know if they can open or not,” said Barth. “But if their customers come to me and say ‘Is it safe to go up there?’ I’m going to say ‘No.’”
According to Isenhour, there is too much focus is on getting Ghost Town back open for the summer season rather than helping impacted residents. Barth said the town’s main focus is to see the mountain stabilized and safe, not to help Ghost Town reopen.
Though the Rich Cove community lies in both town and county territory, town leaders have spearheaded the cleanup effort, tracking down funding for the cleanup and keeping residents in the loop with the regular meetings.
Miner said she’s grateful to the town for holding the semi-monthly meetings but would like to see an engineer or geologist familiar with the efforts inform residents about their findings.
Barth said he was planning to do so once more specific plans are in place.
“It doesn’t make sense for the engineers to come before they complete their report,” said Barth.