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Experts convene at rockslide response conference

When a rockslide shut down Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River Gorge in Haywood County three years ago, the N.C. Department of Transportation scrambled to clean up the massive slab that sheered off the mountain and then shore up the towering rock face against future slides.


But it still took six months to reopen the road, negatively affecting the economies of Western North Carolina. The need for cooperation and coordinated response in the aftermath of rockslides gave rise to an annual conference that brings together state highway departments, county leaders, emergency management teams, tourism leaders, geological experts and others to talk about rockslide prevention and response.

“Our purpose is really to get all of the folks that would be affected together to see what happens from various perspectives and have a coordination of resource and networking event so we can increase awareness,” said Denese Ballew, a regional planner with Land-of-Sky Regional Council, a regional planning and development organization for Asheville and surrounding counties.

Better cooperation and response during a rockslide can save time and money. WNC loses about $1 million a day in tourism revenue whenever a rockslide blocks Interstate 40, Ballew said.

“I think there is a lot of benefit really to having people meet each other and know each other,” Ballew said. “It is a lot easier to know that this person over here has this resource if you’ve met them and talked to them before.”

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So, Land-of-Sky created a rockslide conference, the first of which was held in Newport, Tenn., in 2011. This year, it will hold its second in Haywood County. Haywood Community College will host the rockslide conference from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 5.

Although it was born out of concern about the effects of Interstate 40 rockslides on the Smoky Mountain region, the event this year will also include discussions about more run-of-the-mill landslides.

Rick Wooten, a landslide expert with the N.C. Geological Service based in Asheville, will speak about landslide warning signs and some best practices for responding to them.

A recent rash of landslides makes how to deal with them a timely topic. In January, WNC was hit by several days of heavy rains, causing flooding and dozens of landslides, both big and small, around the region. Then a couple of weeks ago, another bout of prolonged rains came, and more slides occurred. One slide killed a railroad worker from Waynesville.

“The conference brings to focus the importance of being ready to respond and the importance of good upkeep and proactive approaches to keeping roads open,” said Joel Setzer, the head of the N.C. DOT’s 10-county mountain region. “It is a good way to bring leaders together and hear about what we are doing.”

Other featured speakers include an expert from the state’s hazard mitigation office, an engineer for a private rockslide prevention company and a project manager with the Federal Highways Administration.

“It is always interesting to hear what (the experts) have to say,” said Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey, who will welcome everyone to the conference.

He added that for county administrators like himself, the conference is an information-gathering event where he can keep up with new protocols and techniques for dealing with rockslides and landslides.

Jason Lambert, director of commerce for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, will deliver the keynote address at noon. Lambert will detail just how much of an economic impact the closure of U.S. 441 though the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had on Cherokee businesses.

A landslide in January closed U.S. 441, the main tourism artery from Gatlinburg to the Cherokee Indian reservation, for about three months.

For more on the conference or to register go to or 828.251.6622.

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