The main message that local and state authorities are frenetically broadcasting to the world is that Western North Carolina is still open for business even though a major rockslide will likely shut down a portion of Interstate 40 near the Tennessee border for at least four months.
Governor Beverly Perdue echoed that message last Wednesday after declaring the rockslide an emergency, thereby qualifying the state to receive federal money for the cleanup.
“We are open and very, very safe,” said Perdue, who rushed to the rockslide site after returning from a two-week cultural and trade mission to China and Japan. “If you want to see beauty and glory, you come right now.”
Perdue anticipates that the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cleanup cost, as it typically does after a natural disaster. In addition, Perdue hopes to launch a short-term co-op marketing campaign, funded by federal, state and local money, to publicize alternate routes into WNC.
Perdue toured the rockslide site on Wednesday (Oct. 28), along with Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti and Deputy Commerce Secretary Dale Carroll, and N.C. Reps. Phil Haire and Ray Rapp.
Perdue remarked that the 150-foot tall and 200- to 300-foot wide rockslide looked much bigger in person.
“Those boulders are enormous,” said Perdue.
The N.C. Department of Transportation estimates that it will take about four months to open the 20-mile section of I-40 now closed to thru-traffic.
The department has hired Phillips & Jordan of Knoxville, and rock stabilization specialist Jonad Contractors of Champion, N.Y., to perform the work.
So far, contractors have installed a pulley system and moved two drills into place on the face of the mountain slope. They have drilled holes in the rock to set explosives and planned to begin blasting on Tuesday afternoon.
While the biggest challenge lies in stabilizing the precarious rock precipice still looming over the highway, crews will also continue to break up the largest boulders lying in the road for a couple of weeks. At that point, they will have a much better estimate of when I-40 will be able to reopen.
The N.C. DOT has set up a Web site dedicated to updates on the cleanup efforts with a map of alternate routes, all directly accessible off the home page. The agency will also post daily updates to its Twitter account.
Ted Phillips, owner of Phillips & Jordan, emphasized the need to work safely and steadily using a top-down approach to clear the rocks.
“You can’t work down below and undermine yourself,” said Phillips. “You can’t remove it until you get it in the condition to remove it.”
While Phillips said it would take a small crew a “real long time” to clean up the rockslide, Phillips said his company has previously handled a lot worse.
“In my scope, it’s not a big job,” Phillips said.
Local and state officials have begun working on a marketing campaign that will publicize the fact that much of WNC is still accessible.
Starting this week, the state Department of Commerce will survey 1,000 prospective travelers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Knoxville, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro to determine awareness of the rockslide, ask about impact on travel plans and test marketing strategies.
Smoky Mountain Host, a tourism organization the represents seven counties west of Asheville, will utilize its hefty database, with 40,000 e-mail addresses of past visitors to the area, to do similar target research.
David Huskins, managing director of Smoky Mountain Host, said N.C. DOT needs to make sure to market alternate routes and let the public know they can still reach points west of Asheville.
Ron Leatherwood, a board member of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and former DOT board member, encourages locals to patronize the businesses that are most likely to be affected by the I-40 closure, especially the gas stations, motels and restaurants clustered at exits 20 and 24.
Local and state authorities who were around for the last major rockslide on I-40 in 1997 said they were better trained to handle the crisis this time around. Lynn Minges with the State Department of Commerce said as soon as the agency found out about the rockslide, it got on the phone to rally its troops.
The completion of I-26 also helped route trucks away from the two-lane roads they had to resort to during the last rockslide. In addition, the advent of the Internet, with its perpetually updated social media sites, has made connecting with prospective travelers much easier.
Minges estimates that about $150,000 was spent on advertising alternate routes and promoting travel to Western North Carolina last time around.