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Heavy rains cause four slides in Nantahala Gorge

Jackson County Rescue Squad photo Jackson County Rescue Squad photo

A severe deluge dropped 3.5 inches of rain in the Nantahala Gorge in Swain County on Saturday and triggered slides that covered the road in four locations within a half-mile stretch on the western side of the gorge and spread debris from the mountainside into the river at three locations.

North Carolina Department of Transportation crews are working around the clock on U.S. 19/74 until the highway can be reopened. Transportation officials anticipate opening the road to traffic on Tuesday afternoon or evening, Aug. 27. 

“Slides one, two and three had no structural damage to the road, but at slide four, we need to build it back and that should take two more days,” Division 14 Maintenance Engineer Wesley Grindstaff said. “We will be working 24 hours a day because this is a critical roadway.” 

More than 50 NCDOT employees and contract employees are removing mud, trees and rocks from the road from the three largest locations after clearing the smallest debris pile early Sunday. Those employees are utilizing 15 trucks, four front-end loaders and three track-excavators in addition to chainsaws and hand tools. Three locations were expected to be cleaned by Monday morning in time to begin repairing small sections of guardrail and patching asphalt in spots. 

The largest site — where the debris flow washed away 80 feet of guardrail and shoulder while rocks broke limbs 25 feet above the road — requires additional repairs. Two excavators dug out loose soil beside the road Sunday morning and began rebuilding the embankment between the road and the river Sunday afternoon. Two more days of work remain to rebuild the support, the road surface and safety features. 

NCDOT crews from four counties — Cherokee and Graham from the west, with Swain and Jackson from the east — cleared a path to remove between 12 and 15 vehicles that had been stuck between slides around 12:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. Engineers arrived on site at sunrise Sunday to assess the damage and develop the plan employees are enacting now. Early estimates indicate that repairs will cost around $500,000. 

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“Sometimes we’ll be out here cleaning up a little mud or small trees in this gorge after rain events,” Grindstaff said. “But nothing like this. With an average of 4,500 cars per day on this road — there’s more in the summer and rafting season — we know how important is to get the road open quickly.”

Due to the landslides within the Nantahala Ranger District, recreational river activities have been significantly impacted. Several areas along the Nantahala River between Wayah Road and the Nantahala Outdoor Center have significant amounts of debris including mud, downed trees and rocks, making passage extremely hazardous. River flows have been suspended for the time being.

Access to Nantahala Outdoor Center is open from the east on U.S. 74. Access to NOC is blocked from the west on U.S. 74 with slides heavily affecting the area around Ferebee. All NOC non-river operations are running as normal, including restaurants, zip lines and retail store.

Currently, Ferebee Memorial Park is closed to public access.

The U.S. Forest Service will be on site Tuesday, Aug. 27, after the road is reopened by DOT, with a technical team to assess the damage. Assessments include identifying safety concerns, inspecting impacts to river and identifying restoration and risk mitigation requirements. The team will also inspect recreational infrastructure at Ferebee Memorial Park and elsewhere within the impacted area.

The U.S. Forest Service is working with Duke Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, North Carolina Department of Transportation and North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to assess the damage, understand impacts and develop a plan moving forward.

Visitors should avoid these areas to ensure their own safety and that of crews assessing and clearing debris. Follow the National Forests in North Carolina on Facebook for more updates. 

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