Interstate 40 closed indefinitely after another rockslide

Less than four months after a rockslide in Haywood County closed a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 40, it’s happened again.

Shortly after 2 p.m. today, an announcement from the North Carolina Department of Transportation announced the closure.

I-40 cleared of rock-slide debris and open to motorists

Interstate 40 near the Tennessee line in Haywood County reopened early Sunday morning following two rockslides in as many weeks. Only one lane of the Interstate is open through the Pigeon River Gorge near the state line, however.

Following the initial rockslide at mile marker 451 in Tennessee, about one mile from the North Carolina state border on Jan. 31, a second rockslide occurred on Feb. 3 near mile marker 7 in North Carolina.

The westbound lanes of the Interstate in Haywood County were closed to traffic for only six days — shorter than earlier estimates and far shorter than a five-month closure two years ago.

The latest slide left 600 tons of rock in the roadway, with some boulders the size of small cars.

N.C. Department of Transportation crews, with help from Ameritech Slope Constructors Inc. of Asheville, removed an additional 150 tons of loose rock from the mountainside and hauled off the debris from the road by the late afternoon Sunday. The site is now clear and safe for travel.

Slide closes westbound I-40

A rockslide has shut down a portion of Interstate 40 in Haywood County for up to two weeks.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, a rockslide occurred near mile marker 451 in Tennessee, about one mile from the North Carolina border. Unlike the two major landslides in the past 15 years, which caused major problems for businesses in Haywood County, this most recent slide was contained to the shoulder of the road.

“It doesn’t look anywhere near as extensive as the major rock slides years ago,” said Mark Nagi, a community relations officer for Tennessee DOT.

It is unclear what or how big an effect the rockslide will have on businesses in Haywood County.

“That is just something that we can’t answer at this point in time,” said CeCe Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “Hopefully, this will not have a big effect on business in Haywood County.”

For now, county tourism leaders are spreading the word that Interstate 40 is still open near Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Canton and Clyde.

“We are just thinking how to keep the doors open,” Hipps said.

The Haywood County and Maggie chambers and the Tourism Development Authority have emailed businesses and posted information on their websites about the slide and encouraged visitors not to cancel their plans.

“We want to make sure that people are not deterred,” Hipps said.

Winter means a slower tourist season for most of the area, which gets a majority of its tourism business in the summer and fall. However, Cataloochee Ski Area is one of the local attractions that could be negatively impacted by the natural disaster as people will have to tack on extra travel time.

“The route to Maggie Valley is still open,” said Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Hopefully, the customer base at Cataloochee will add on that extra time.”

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is stopping motorists at Exit 20 near Jonathan Creek in Haywood County and are directing them to an alternative route through Asheville using I-26.

Anywhere between 20,000 and 25,000 vehicles travel the closed stretch of Interstate 40 each day.

As of late Tuesday morning, no traffic delays had been reported, according to NCDOT.

There is no official cause of the slide, but Nagi said the recent freeze and thaw of temperatures played a part.

“That contributed I’m sure at least in some way,” he said.

TDOT is still analyzing the slide and deciding how to clean it up. The night prevented officials beginning the process sooner.

“We had to wait for the sun to start rising before we could get a good look at everything,” Nagi said.

In late 2009, a rockslide shut down a section of Interstate 40 for about six months. Haywood County businesses saw a stark decline in customers as a result because travelers coming from the west were forced to tack more than 70 miles onto their trip.


A long detour

To Tennessee: The official detour around the closed portion of I-40 sends people north from Asheville on I-26 to Johnson City, Tenn. and finally onto I-81 South to get back to I-40. The trip adds an extra 70 miles to the trip.

SBA spreads the wealth wide and far in I-40 rockslide loans

The U.S. Small Business Administration plans to hand over more than $1.4 million in disaster relief loans to a host of unlikely recipients in the region.

The low-interest loans are meant to aid businesses distressed by a rockslide that shut down a section of Interstate 40 in Haywood County since October.

Many of the 15 businesses that have received loans so far are hotels, motels and restaurants found far from the interstate. Others don’t appear to be tourism-related businesses at all, making it hard to figure how a drop in the traveling public on I-40 would have hurt their bottom line.

Becky & Jaime’s Water’N Hole, a bar in Waynesville, will receive $17,300 in federal money.

Asheville’s Fun Depot, which offers go-carts, laser tag and mini-golf, will get $87,800 in loans.

And Falin Excavating in Sevierville, Tenn. — more than 35 miles away from where Interstate 40 is blocked off — has received the most out of any business so far: $333,200.

SBA spokesman Matt Young pointed out that the economic impact is far more widespread than one might think.

“You can have counties north of Haywood, south, east or west,” said Young. “They all could have been impacted because of their inability to have access to Interstate 40.”

County lines mean little when it comes to doing business, Young added. Businesses on either side of the closed road may have lost access to suppliers, for example.

Young would not provide the names of businesses that were denied a loan.

A pervasive impact

Dave Day, owner of Asheville’s Fun Depot and the adjacent Brookstone Lodge, received SBA loans for both businesses.

Day said sales have dropped by 10 percent because of the rockslide, and his businesses have suffered the loss of lucrative bus groups that often stop by.

“It’s not like I was going to go out of business, but it definitely had an effect on the business when your sales drop off,” said Day.

With an ailing economy already hurting sales, businesses have had the extra burden of proving their financial loss was caused particularly by the rockslide.

Since Day keeps a tally of where his customers come from, he was able to show the SBA a drop-off of customers from Tennessee.

Hotel manager Teresa Smith said she’s likewise seen a plunge in Tennessee travelers venturing to Maggie Valley since the rockslide occurred.

Smith is general manager of the Maggie Valley Inn, one of the few clear-cut cases of a tourism-based business in the actual vicinity of the slide.

On a recent weekend, only 12 out of 110 rooms at the hotel were occupied. During the same weekend last year, 28 rooms were full.

“Certainly [the loans are] going to help keep us afloat through the rest of the winter,” said Smith. “March and April are even typically slower than December, January and February because skiing is over with.”

Smith said though above average snowfall has brought a greater influx of skiers to Maggie Valley, the inn has had to cut back on its already skeletal wintertime crew.

Smith not only handles her regular duties but also mans the front desk and answers phones — tasks that would usually be divvied between two employees.

Even though the inn is approved for loans, they haven’t received one lump sum, Smith said. The SBA is doling it out a little at a time.

Loan or no loan, it’s clear that most businesses in Maggie Valley have all been affected by the rockslide.

“You can just ride up and down the road in Maggie Valley and look at how many cars are in each of the businesses,” said Smith, who also serves as president of Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “You get a good feel for what everyone’s going through.”

Delays in rock slide cleanup push back I-40 opening

Harsh winter weather has delayed the reopening of Interstate 40 until late April, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Snow, rain, heavy winds and bitter cold shut down operations for a total of 14 days, leading to the delay.

“The weather has been the only reason,” said Jon Nance, chief engineer of operations for the DOT. “The contractor has been very aggressive.”

The DOT initially stated the cleanup would take about three months shortly after a massive rockslide buried the interstate near the Tennessee border on Oct. 25.

Following a closer look, the DOT shifted its target for reopening to March, but warned the cleanup could take as long as May.

The cost of repairing the rockslide’s impact remains $10 million, at the upper limit of the original estimate.

Dean Kirkpatrick, owner of Dean’s Haywood Café near exit 24 of Interstate 40, said he’s disappointed about the delay but understands the reasoning behind it.

Kirkpatrick often interacts with I-40 workers who regularly visit his restaurant and give him the latest updates.

“We appreciate all of them, the road crews, the bridge crews, working day and night,” said Kirkpatrick.

Still, Kirkpatrick admits that January and February have been the two toughest months he can remember in his 40 years of business.

While it’s been months since the DOT shut down the Interstate near his business, Kirkpatrick holds no grudges against the agency.

“They are anxious to get it open just as much as we are,” said Kirkpatrick. “I’m sure they’re getting a lot of flack.”

Businesses that rely on the interstate for tourism are also eagerly anticipating the road’s reopening. Tourism in the region usually starts picking up in April, according to Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

But Collins said the first priority is to make roads safe for travelers.

The DOT has been cooperative changing its signs to let travelers know they can still access Western North Carolina regardless of the road closure, according to Collins. They’ve even placed one such sign in South Carolina, Collins added.

According to the DOT, about 25 inches of snow fell between December and February, a 250 percent increase over the historic average of 10 inches.

Seventeen inches of rain fell on the area during the same period, about a 30 percent increase over the historic average of 13 inches.

In spite of the tough weather, contractors have cleared a rock mass 60 feet wide, 80 feet tall and 20 feet thick — the size of a small apartment building — and are working on installing 590 rock bolts to stabilize the mountainside.

Crews have drilled 230 holes and have installed 125 as of Monday. Drilling for the bolts has been underway for more than seven weeks, but they have finished only a third of the work.

Some bolts are more than 100 feet long. In particularly steep sections of the rock face, bolts must be lowered in place by a helicopter while men in harnesses guide them into place. The bolting process can continue once the Interstate reopens.

The DOT has taken advantage of the 20-mile road closure to work on maintenance projects, including paving tunnels, repairs to four bridges, tree and brush maintenance and slope mowing along the corridor — all of which has amounted to $5.3 million in investments.

“We have not been sitting idly by,” said Nance. “We have done a lot of work.”

Life on the rock

Workers on the rockslide slope are laboring around the clock. There’s a day crew and a night crew, ranging from 15 to 25 men per shift. They labor for 10 hours at a stretch on the side of a steep, towering rock face.

“If you need anything you take it up with you. They don’t come back down,” said Mike Patton, the lead DOT inspector on the site.

That goes not just for food, but using the bathroom, too.

“Once you get up there it is every man for himself,” Patton said.

During the first two months, when work primarily focused on busting up and hauling off the major pile of boulders at the base of the slide, there were dozens of equipment operators and dump truck drivers coming and going to the site. Workers would often call in a massive order of hamburgers to a diner in Hartford, Tenn., and a woman who worked there would deliver them. One entrepreneuer set up a Philly Cheese Steak concession stand near the worksite and became known as Hotdog Willie. He even made a turkey dinner for workers laboring on Thanksgiving Day.

But once the pile was carted away and work shifted to the mountainside overhead, there weren’t enough workers on the ground to support the hot lunch spot and he closed up shop, although his stand is still parked at the staging area.

Now, the remaining ground crews, as well as those on the slope, must pack sandwiches and sundry snacks to sustain themselves during the long work days and cold, dark nights in the remote Pigeon River Gorge.

Staying warm is a challenge in the shadow of the tall, narrow walls of the gorge, which block the sun for all but the middle part of the day. Shane Cook, a worker for the main contractor on the job, Phillips and Jordan, knows exactly what time the sun crests the ridge and the first patch of pavement where it hits.

“About 9 o’clock in the morning it comes across that ridge and about 2:30 it goes behind that one, so you don’t get but about 5 hours,” Cook said.

Ground crews and inspectors sometimes pack into the contractor’s trailers for quick warm ups during the day, but mostly resort to climbing in and out of their trucks and blasting the heater to dethaw. Needless to say, they call come to work with a full tank of gas. Some on the night shift bring an extra five gallon gas can.

They wear extra pants, two pairs of gloves, fleece caps with ear flaps under their hardhats and bring an extra pair of socks to change into in case the ones they have get wet.

But those high above on the rock have no truck to climb into to stay warm and can’t work when too encumberd by layers. During the worst of Janurary’s extreme cold, when lows dipped into single digits repeatedly night after night, work was suspended.

A new rockslide on I-40 over the weekend may take up to three weeks to clear

Another rockslide struck along the already closed section of Interstate 40 over the weekend.

The new slide is nothing like the earlier one, but big enough in its own right. It covered both westbound lanes just past exit 7 at Harmon Den. It brought down an estimated 500 cubic yards of rock — the equivalent of about 50 dump truck loads. The pile in the road is about 40 feet long and 50 feet wide, with the largest rocks the size of SUVs.

While the Interstate was already blocked to through traffic, it is still used 24-7 by workers coming and going to the larger slide repair. Luckily the new slide didn’t hurt anyone. It was discovered at 1 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23, by a construction supervisor for Phillips & Jordan, the head contractor over repairs on the larger slide.

The clean up may take as little as three weeks. Additional crews will be brought in, so repairs to the smaller slide should not extend the closure of I-40 any longer than it would be already.

Meanwhile, a rock slide on the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Spur in Tennessee also happened over the weekend. The slide only covered one side of the road. The unaffected lanes were set up to allow two-way traffic, with one lane in each direction.

How to fix a mountainside

In the first days following the rockslide on Interstate 40 last October, Jody Kuhne had the unenviable job of rappelling down the freshly scoured rock face and into a gaping chasm left in the mountainside.

As the DOT’s resident expert on landslides, his mission was to figure out the nature of the problem and begin plotting a fix.

A giant slab the size of a five-story apartment building had sheered off the mountainside. Most of it fractured on impact creating an enormous pile of over-sized boulders. But a large wedge was lodged at the base of the mountain like a stubborn bookend. Unless Kuhne could rappel behind it — a six-foot-wide fissure called the back crack — he wouldn’t know exactly what kind of slide they were dealing with.

With surveying instruments stowed in his pack, Kuhne harnessed up and lowered down the rock face on ropes to measure the angle of the fault line that caused the slide. Combined with aerial photography, he generated a 3-D map of the remaining mountainside and soon realized they were dealing with a worst case scenario.

The rock slide was known as a “wedge failure,” except only the lower half of the wedge had broken lose.

Imagine an upside down pyramid superimposed on the rock face. The tip broke off and slid down the mountain, but the wide base was left behind and now loomed 250 to 400 feet above the workers on the ground. A fault line — the same fault line that caused the lower part to slide — ran in a large vein all the way up the mountainside.

That fault line lurking below the surface left the upper half of the mountain susceptible to a slide. It was Kuhne’s job to figure out just how susceptible.

“If it came out to a certain factor of stability that was acceptable to us, we’d walk away. But it didn’t. It is on the borderline of stability,” Kuhne said.

Ideally, they could blast away what remained of the giant wedge to eliminate the looming threat.

“We tried that, but it was time consuming, expensive and extremely dangerous,” Kuhne said.

Short of a bombing run by the U.S. Air Force, that strategy seemed impossible.

“To get up there and start drilling and blasting, you risk a catastrophic failure of the whole thing. It would certainly kill anyone on it, around it or in front of it,” said Mike Patton, the lead DOT inspector on the slide site.

So if the mountain couldn’t be brought down, at least not until gravity was ready, Kuhne had to figure out how to stop gravity from eventually getting its way. The answer was bolts. Lots of them.

Theoretically, bolts drilled deep below the vein of weakness would apply enough torque to hold the mountainside in place.

“It has to be anchored below the failure plane and basically snug that thing to the slope,” Kuhne said.

Based on his modeling, Kuhne could calculate how deep the fault plane was. Along the outer edges, it ran about 40 feet below the surface. But in the center — the thickest part of the wedge — it was some 120 feet down.

Based on the force each bolt conveyed and the mass of the wedge being held in place, Kuhne came up with 590 bolts. They would be spaced every 10 feet creating a giant grid on the mountainside. Kuhne likens it to a blanket of force battening down the rock face.

The sheer number of bolts combined with the depth of the holes mean 9.5 miles of holes have to be drilled.

It took eight weeks to blast apart and haul away to pile of boulders created by the slide.

“If that was all we were facing we would be done and open right now,” Kuhne said.

But the process of drilling holes and anchoring giant bolts into the mountainside has proved time consuming, further hampered by snow, ice and record cold.

There are currently five drill rigs on the side of the mountain, each one about the size of a go-cart. The drill shafts come in five-foot sections. Every five feet, the operator has to stop and screw on another length of shaft as it bores deeper and deeper.


Installing the bolts

So far, nearly a third of the 590 holes have been drilled. This week, the first bolts will be installed, no easy task given their enormous length.

A helicopter will hover overhead suspending the bolts while men on the slope maneuver them into place and feed each one into its hole.

Since the holes vary in depth, each one is numbered. The bolts have a tag with a corresponding number — a piece of duct tape marked with a black Sharpie.

The bolts are only 1.5 inches in diameter, but the holes being drilled are roughly 3.5 inches. The space around the bolts will be filled with grout.

The job will take a lot of grout, about two tractor-trailer loads. Water to mix with the grout will be pumped from a stream cascading down the mountain near the slope. Pipes will carry the water overland to a giant holding tank at the top of the slope. The holding tank has a heater to warm the water up to 50 degrees before it can be mixed with the grout, Patton said.

Getting grout into the deep but narrow gap around the bolt is another challenge. Long tubes duct taped along the length of the bolts will carry grout pumped to the bottom of the hole.

“You are filling the hole up from the bottom up,” Patton said.

The bolt has a flexible plastic ring every 10 feet to serve as a spacer and keep it centered in the hole as grout fills up around it.

Further complicating the process, each bolt had to be cased in a large plastic sheath. Inside the sheath, the bolt is caked with grease. The bolt will stretch as it is tightened down, and the greased-coated sheath will allow the necessary movement without breaking the bolt.

“You put these thing under so much stress that, believe it or not, we will stretch that bolt about four inches,” Patton said.

Each bolt will be subjected to a force of 7,000 PSI (pounds per square inch) using a giant hydraulic jack to pull it tight.

Finally, a plate about seven inches in diameter will cap the bolt.

Given the roughly 400 holes left to drill, and all but 10 of the 590 bolts still to install, including five days to let grout dry in each hole before the bolts can be stretched and capped, it is optimistic to assume the DOT can meet its self-imposed deadline of getting the Interstate open again by the end of March. But Patton said that’s still the plan.

“When things really get rolling, that is not necessarily going to be impossible,” Patton said.

Hang-ups are inevitable, however, and not just from the weather. The contractor hoped to fire up additional drilling rigs on the slope, but for the past three weeks, crews have been waiting on an order of extra drill shafts to arrive from Italy.

“All the Italians went on extended vacation at Christmas time,” Patton said.

As the lead DOT inspector on the slide, Patton is tasked with assessing whether the holes are drilled right, the bolts are installed right and whether each one carries the right load.

“Only 590 good bolts achieves the safety factor we are looking for so you have to make sure all 590 are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Patton said.

Only time will tell if the strategy will work. But one thing is certain: without the bolts, the upper half of the mountain would be a ticking time bomb given the past history of I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge.

“Considering we get these every 10 years periodically and have had dozens since this was constructed, it will slide sooner than a million years,” Kuhne said. “If this decides to fail while we are standing here it will take about 10 seconds for it all to be in the road, and we will stand here and watch it all happen.”

Not for the faint of heart

The highly technical and extremely dangerous work to stabilize the rockslide is being carried out by Janod, a Canadian company. A leading expert in rock stabilization, they get called in by mines, quarries, railroads and highway departments to shore up volatile mountainsides.

Janod brought along a team of employees from all over the world. But they have hired some locals — including two young men from the Fines Creek area of Haywood County — and are still looking. The top requirement other than no fear of heights?

“You have to be able to physically climb that thing everyday. Unless the guy is a real go-getter, the first week here is going to be rough,” said Mike Patton, the lead DOT inspector on the site.

The upper staging platform is 400 feet up, and the steep hand-over-hand climb is hard work.

“Ropes assist you almost all the way to the top. Without them you would be on your hands and knees. The rope also gives you something to hold onto so if you slip you don’t start tumbling down,” Patton said.

Once on the slope, cables run back and forth for workers to shimmy along.

“There is a safety net that is strung all the way across the thing so if someone were to fall and you can’t get ahold of a stump you are going to get tangled up in that net,” Patton said.

On steeper sections, workers wear harnesses tied off to anchors and cables as they move about.

Getting equipment and supplies up the slope is another story. Some equipment is ferried up in a large cage with a system of cables and winches.

But heavier things require a helicopter. The drill rigs are the size of a go-cart and grout pumps are the size of a big pick-up. There’s massive light poles for working at night, bundles of steel drill shafts and pallets of grout — all of which had to be airlifted onto the slope.

Several staging areas and platforms were built on the slope as a repository for equipment. Ultimately, however, the crews have to muscle the supplies to the exact spot where they’re needed. When the bolts are installed, for example, they’ll be tightened down with a giant hydraulic jack.

“That weighs about 300 pounds, which these poor guys will have to manhandle around on the slopes,” Patton said.

In the final stages of the job, workers will have to tackle drilling and bolt installation on a verticle rock face. They will rappell into place with their equipment rigs suspended from platforms.

“Almost like a window washer on a sky rise — something like that is what I envision,” Patton said.

As the site inspector, Patton has to go where ever the workers go, even if it’s over the side of the mountain. So the DOT sent him to a crash course on rock climbing.

“The first time I did it, I felt like Spiderman in a way,” Patton said. “The first time you lean backwards over a straight sheer drop, it’s tough. You have to learn to trust the rope.”

Janod is working under a $6.2 million subcontract from Phillips and Jordan, the prime contractor on the job. Phillips and Jordan had a total contract of $9.2 million for the slide clean-up, a price that is bound to climb higher, however, due to weather and unforeseen additions.

As the prime contractor, Phillips and Jordan is reponsible for bringing the project to the finish line, and all the myriad details along the way. During blasting, for example, Phillips and Jordan set up seismograph equipment to monitor the tremors. If they were too strong, it could rupture nearby pipes that carry water from the Pigeon River dam to the Waterville hydropower plant.

Phillips and Jordan also employed spotters to simply keep watch around the perimeter for things that might go wrong. As blast technicians were preparing to set a charge one day, one looked over the road side into the Pigeon River below and saw a group of kayakers in the water. Debris from the blasts has been known to fly across the road and down the banks into the river, shearing off tree tops as it goes. The blast was halted in the nick of time.

Striking while the iron’s hot

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has found a silver lining in the Interstate 40 closure following a massive rockslide in late October near the Tennessee line.

It is taking advantage of the months-long shut down by fast-tracking maintenance work already in the pipeline.

The N.C. DOT expects to spend a total of $4.5 million on routine maintenance along the corridor while contractors continue hauling away debris from the massive rockslide.

Transportation Secretary Gene Conti recently awarded a $2 million contract for a new concrete surface on the I-40 bridge over White Oak Road in Jonathan Creek.

The work is less costly now that contractors don’t have to work around a constant flow of traffic, according to Joel Setzer, DOT division engineer for 10 western counties.

“When the rockslide occurred, we immediately saw an opportunity,” said Setzer.

In all, DOT workers are tackling four bridge deck repairs, repaving three tunnels, and replacing all arrows and reflectors on the median walls.

They’re trimming trees, removing brush, mowing slopes and performing drainage maintenance.

N.C. DOT’s Geotech Unit is also inspecting other areas along the corridor that previously have had rockslides to check for potential problems. Setzer said the Geotech Unit has so far done only visual inspections, but it plans to further explore riskier areas by foot.

While the DOT had already commissioned workers to trim trees on all roads in Haywood County, they were all redirected to the I-40 corridor immediately after the rockslide.

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