Great Smoky Mountains Parkway reopens after January landslide
Just 90 days after a devastating landslide erupted in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Michell Hicks, and Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) Construction Operations Engineer Emmett Melton reopened the road to traffic, finishing the project 30 days ahead of schedule. On January 16, torrential rainfall caused a landslide to wash away a portion of U.S. 441 near Newfound Gap Road, taking away thru-access from Cherokee to Tennessee.
Originally, the earliest date of completion was set for May 15 with projections of the project taking as long as early June. As an incentive, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and The National Park Service offered Phillips & Jordan, Inc. (P&J) the contractors awarded the bid on the project, an $18,000 a day bonus (up to $500,000) for every day the project was completed before the May 15 deadline. Finishing two days before the bonus would begin, P&J finished the road and will receive the full $500,000 bonus. P&J, the Robbinsville-based company, was awarded the project contract at a cost of $3,989,890. “We recognize the economic importance of the road to our neighboring communities and are grateful that our partners at Federal Highways Administration were able to respond efficiently to our need and work with the contractors to make the necessary repairs in less than 90 days,” said Superintendent Ditmanson on Monday morning.
The first assessment of the landslide showed that the slide was approximately 90,000 cubic yards of material or 350-400 feet, around the length of a football field, and 45-50 feet deep.
P&J was awarded the contract on February 20, and went to work just two days later. Before P&J came in for Phase II of the project, APAC Harrison Division was brought on in early February to complete the clean up and clearing of the project site. Once P&J got on scene, according to Emmett Melton, the crews began working around the clock. “The guys with P&J worked 24 hours a day seven days a week all but two days during the project,” said Melton.
To avoid future landslides, the project was completed with the installation of a new drainage system along the road. The final design includes more than 200 feet of pipe to allow for the drainage of subsurface water flow along with 150 feet of side drainage leading to a culvert at the end of the slope. This drainage system is designed to protect the road and park resources from future damage due to both overflow and subsurface water flow. “Before, water was filling under the road and that is what caused the landslide,” said Ditmanson. “The new drainage system along both sides of the road should prevent that from occurring again.”
According to Ditmanson, both sides of the road were sown with seed to help manage erosion. The fill area was naturally sloped and planted with seed. In addition, erosion measures were put into place along the 900 foot debris field below the landslide which was also seeded.
Economic impact of landslide drives progress
With 9.5 million visitors to the park last year, having the park closed for 90 days had a significant impact on the economy in Cherokee and surrounding towns. According to Chief Hicks, Cherokee missed out on crucial tourism opportunities. “While the tourist season is just now starting, we did miss two weeks worth of spring break travelers that the local economy usually depends on,” said Hicks on Monday. “Early studies predicted that the road closing would cause about a million dollars to be lost for Cherokee and the towns around the reservation.”
Congressman Mark Meadows spoke to the importance of completing the project with great haste and veracity. “We put politics and party aside to get this project done as quick as possible,” said Meadows. “We could have businesses closing, people hurting and the economy suffering, but instead everyone worked together to make sure we got the road up and running again.”
When the Cherokee economy began to slow after the landslide, The Smoky Mountain Gold and Ruby Mine, which is located at the bottom of the parkway and usually open all year long, was forced to close on Feb. 1. The store, which employs five fulltime people and several seasonal part-time employees, remained closed until about two weeks ago. “We winterized the store and sent everyone home for about two months,” said store employee Teresa Burns. “We had heard the road was nearing completion, so we opened back up to start getting everything ready. It is so great to hear that the road is back open again and we hope that people start coming over the mountain into Cherokee again soon.”
By being closed for two months, the shop missed out on spring breakers and were forced to cancel several field trips from schools throughout Western North Carolina. With the road's reopening, store employees are back in action and waiting for the 2013 tourist season to kick off.