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The cost of repairing Interstate 40 after a massive rockslide in late October will now be borne by the federal government instead of the state.

Last week, the Federal Highway Administration agreed to use emergency relief funds to fully reimburse the state for the cleanup efforts, which have closed a 20-mile section of road near the Tennessee border that usually sees about 25,000 vehicles every day.

Latest estimates show the total repair bill would run between $7 and $9 million, according to North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesman Jerry Higgins.

Governor Beverly Perdue declared the I-40 rockslide a disaster shortly after the rockslide occurred, opening up doors to federal emergency funds, which help state and local governments pay for repairs due to floods, tornadoes, landslides and other natural disasters.

Next on Perdue’s wishlist are low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration for local businesses reeling from the impact of the road closure. Some Haywood County motels, restaurants, and gas stations that rely heavily on traffic from I-40 have seen a dramatic drop in business after the road closure at exit 20.

Haywood County tourism officials have said a false perception that the road closure has blocked off access to all of Western North Carolina has adversely affected the local economy.

The DOT has given contrasting reports on when it expects to reopen I-40. While Higgins reported that he expected the cleanup to take “at least three more months,” a press release issued by Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, stated DOT officials expect I-40 to remain closed for about another month.

So far, workers have blasted apart mammoth boulders and hauled away about 4,000 tons of debris to a nearby U.S. Forest Service site. Last week, a fleet of 15 trucks transported 200 loads of rock, which will be stockpiled for future road repairs.

As many as eight workers hand-carried between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of explosives up the slope so they could be set in the holes for detonation, according to the DOT.

 

A disastrous situation

If the Small Business Administration decides to open up economic injury loans to the region, struggling businesses in WNC could apply for assistance in covering everyday expenses, from keeping people on payroll to just keeping the lights on.

Despite feeling the most immediate impact from the rockslide, businesses from Haywood County would not be the only ones eligible for the loans. Businesses from all contiguous counties, including Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson, Madison, Swain and Transylvania counties, could claim SBA loans.

SBA has made it standard procedure to offer up loans to the affected county and all surrounding counties, according to Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for N.C. Emergency Management.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get the loans,” said Jarema. “They have to show a need.”

Some businesses in Haywood County have already demonstrated such a need for assistance.

Gina Shuler, who manages the Days Inn in Canton near I-40 , estimates that business there has dropped by more than 70 percent after the rockslide.

“It’s really taken a toll on everything,” said Shuler. “We’re probably going to have to start laying people off. It’s a really hard time.”

Shuler said the motel already faced a rough two years with the recession. Now, the motel is seeing nights when only two rooms out of forty are occupied.

“We’re just really going day by day,” said Shuler. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next week.”

The Midway Motel, near exit 20 where I-40 is blocked off, is another business that’s gravely suffering due to the rockslide.

Owner Brooke Gayne said last week that she did not have a single person in the motel.

Nevertheless, Gayne is reluctant to apply for the loans should they become available.

“That would be a last resort,” said Gayne. “Because you’d have to pay it back.”

Summer Smart, a waitress at nearby Haywood Cafe, said locals have kept the restaurant going, but she anticipated a big drop in the number of holiday travelers.

For now, most of the travelers who stop by are just looking for directions to places like Cherokee and Gatlinburg.

Smart has noticed the Pilot truck stop across the road is faring especially poorly.

“It’s really like a ghost town over there,” said Smart. “I feel sorry for them. All their business is truckers and travelers.”

 

Broadcasting the right message

Some members of the tourism and business community are working hard to publicize the fact that WNC is still accessible, hoping to stop travelers from steering away from the area after seeing I-40 closure signs.

Cece Hipps, executive director of Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, said DOT signs that inform travelers about the rockslide are correct but don’t do enough to dispel the perception that I-40 is closed to the mountains.

“You can’t really read the entire sign anyway,” said Hipps. “If you’re traveling 70 miles per hour, you see ‘I-40 closed’ only.”

But Hipps said the DOT understands the urgency of the matter and is probably doing its best.

“I don’t think we should point fingers at anyone,” said Hipps. “The problem is that our customers are not getting the message.”

Mary Jane Ferguson, director of marketing for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is considering the possibility of pooling resources with tourism agencies to put out a billboard that makes it loud and clear to travelers that WNC is still open for business.

But Ferguson said paying for that billboard would difficult since her budget is already strapped due to the recession.

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.

 

Measuring perceptions

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.

Western North Carolina is bracing itself for the impact of a massive rockslide that will shut down a major chunk of Interstate 40 near the Tennessee border for about three months.

The rockslide occurred 2 a.m. Sunday morning three miles from the Tennessee state line in Haywood County, burying both sides of the highway under a mountain of rubble 150 feet high and 200 to 300 feet wide.

Three vehicles crashed into the rocks shortly after the slide, and one person was transported to the hospital for minor injuries.

“We were very fortunate. There were no serious injuries or fatalities,” said Nicole Meister, spokeswoman for N.C. Department of Transportation.

Since the slide, the N.C. DOT declared an emergency, shut down 20 miles of I-40, and brought in workers to begin surveying the slide site.

The cleanup will cost from $2 to $10 million.

Visitors driving westward to Tennessee are being turned away at exit 20, while locals are getting the go-ahead to sneak up to exit 15, the main road access for the Fines Creek and White Oak communities, as well as the county landfill.

About 25,000 vehicles pass through the closed section of I-40 daily, with about half of those being commercial trucks, according to the NCDOT.

Geotechnical engineers are working with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land, to determine how best to clean up the rockslide.

On Monday, this process involved flyovers with a helicopter and taking numerous pictures of the slide.

Workers will have to take a top-down approach when it comes to removing the rubble.

“If you pull it out from the bottom, it’s going to keep coming,” said Meister.

This stretch of the interstate in Haywood County has been no stranger to slides.

Sunday’s rockslide occurred just a mile and a half down the road from the series of slides that occurred in 1997, which shut down part of the interstate for six months. It is the third major rockslide in that area since the mid-1980s.

Joel Setzer, a division engineer with NCDOT, said the latest rockslide is comprised of more rocks and a lot less soil, compared to the one in 1997.

Setzer said the amount of unstable material above the road seems to be a bigger problem this time around.

“The remedy to stabilizing the slope and restoring the traffic is larger,” said Setzer.

Geotechnical scientists and engineers do not know the exact cause of the slide, but are looking at several potential factors, including possible tremors; freezing and thawing of water in cracks in a wedge in the slope, causing expansion and contraction of the rock plates.

By all indications, the closing of Interstate 40 due to a massive rockslide will be more than just a minor headache for many.

Through traffic heading west to Tennessee will be directed to I-26 from Asheville, where cars would have to travel 130 miles to link back up with I-40 across the state line.

Though much of Haywood County will still remain accessible off I-40, it’s feasible that widespread news of the rockslide might turn off visitors to the area.

Most likely to suffer from the road closing are the restaurants, gas stations, motels and tourist-oriented businesses that rely heavily on traffic coming through I-40.

Pilot Travel Center, a truck stop in Waynesville near exit 24, was already feeling the impact of a desolate I-40 on Monday afternoon. A few trucks were scattered here and there, but the vast majority of parking spots sat empty.

Ashley Duckett, an employee at the Pilot convenience store, said business was “dead” on Sunday, the day the rockslide occurred.

“It’s usually booming,” said Linda Henry, another employee at the store, adding that business will definitely hurt without truckers stopping by to fuel up, have a meal, or take a shower.

The people who did walk into the store were only interested in one thing: directions.

“Every other person coming in here is asking how do I get to Tennessee? How do I get to Knoxville? How do I get to Gatlinburg?” said Henry.

The store received so many requests for directions that the manager taped up directions on the door and readied a pile of printouts of Mapquest directions at the counter.

Next door at the Midway Motel, owner Brooke Gayne said she didn’t expect anyone to check in Monday night.

“It’ll be bad,” said Gayne. “I don’t see too many people coming past [exit] 27.”

Exit 27 leads to the heavily-trafficked Great Smoky Mountain Expressway.

Summer Smart, a waitress at the Haywood Cafe near exit 24 on I-40, said the restaurant had not seen one trucker all day.

Smart remembered a drop-off in business after the last rockslide in 1997 closed down a section of I-40 for months. Though locals remained faithful customers, holiday travelers who usually flooded the restaurant were hard to find that year.

James Carver, owner of Maggie Valley Restaurant, also recalled facing a hardship after the last rockslide.

“Business went down a great bit,” said Carver. “It just brought everything to a standstill.”

Carver said businesses would continue to feel an impact even after N.C. DOT cleans up the rockslide and restores traffic.

“It takes a while for word to get around that everything’s open,” said Carver.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce are already working hard to spread the word about alternate routes to keep tourists from Tennessee trickling into the region.

The TDA will post these very detailed directions on its Web site and social media sites, attaching to their Web site a map with alternate routes.

“With several alternate routes available, there really is no reason to cancel any travel plans to the area, whether for these last weeks of leaf-looking or the upcoming ski season,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority

Collins reassures those forced to make the detour that there are “terrific scenic routes with some amazing views along the way.”

Wayne Carson, a staff member at the Canton visitor’s center off I-40, said he’s noted a spike in the number of visitors who want to avoid the interstate anyway.

He said all summer, tourists have requested directions for traveling on back roads and visiting smaller communities on the way.

Carson directed some confused visitors headed toward Gatlinburg through Cherokee and then over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via U.S. 441 on Monday. It is possible that towns along that route will see a pick-up in visitors who would have normally taken I-40 to Tennessee.

Unlike the 1997 rockslide, which shut down roads for the peak summer and fall seasons, this latest rockslide occurred at the beginning of the off-season for most businesses.

“Fall foliage is winding down, but we’re going into ski season. We don’t want to jeopardize that either,” said Collins.

According to Collins, many visitors who come to ski at Cataloochee Ski Area come from the Southeast, not Tennessee.

Tammy Brown, spokeswoman for the ski resort, said they still anticipate a good ski season since a colder than average winter has been forecasted.

Brown said the rockslide will definitely impact business, but by how much is anyone’s guess.

“We’re going to do our best to facilitate individuals from that neck of the woods,” said Brown.

Meanwhile, Alice Mosteller, vice president of a real estate agency in Waynesville, is worried that the rockslide might negatively affect a real estate market that’s just beginning to pick up.

“Just anything that would keep people from coming here is not good,” said Mosteller. “This is the most beautiful time of year possible. What a horrible weekend for it to happen.”

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