Crews have begun working to repair a landslide on a portion of U.S. 441 (Newfound Gap Road) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As a result of late January's first round of torrential rainfall accumulations, a portion of road on the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway connecting Cherokee and Tennessee, was swept away in a landslide. 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.
According to Molly Schroer with the Great Smoky Mountains Park, repairing the road is a work in progress. “Work is progressing to repair the landslide which has closed a section of Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) within Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” said Shroer. “Two key steps are already under way to initiate the reconstruction of the road.”
The road to recovery is separated into two phases. The schedule of the road reconstruction will be determined by the information received from the selected contractor, but is anticipated to be completed by mid-May to early June. Newfound Gap Road will remain closed to thru traffic during the construction, but visitors are still able to access the park to Newfound Gap from the Tennessee side and to Smokemont Campground from the Cherokee entrance.
A contract to fix the road has been awarded for the first phase of work to APAC –Atlantic, Harrison Division to develop an access road to the slide area, remove debris, and stabilize the slope above the work area. This phase is estimated to cost around $200,000 and will prepare the site for the second phase of work which will involve a complete reconstruction of the roadway. This first phase began on Jan. 28, and is expected to be completed in a few weeks.
The contracting portion of the second phase, involving the actual road reconstruction, was initiated on Friday, Jan. 25, when Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) posted a pre-solicitation for qualified contractors with interest in repairing the landslide. The contract for this phase of work is estimated to cost between $3,000,000 and $7,000,000, and is expected to be awarded by mid-February with final construction work to begin soon after.
In response to the landslide, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency in Jackson, Graham and Swain counties. McCrory’s declaration opens the door for state and local government to seek federal monies for costs related to the slide.
According to Congressman Mark Meadows, seeking federal disaster relief funds is a necessary avenue to ensure the road gets open. “In a situation like this, it is important that we look at every possible solution in getting this highway rebuilt,” said Meadows. “Since this is a federal highway, it is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to utilize already appropriated funds in order to reconstruct U.S. 441.”
Senator Jim Davis also supports Gov. McCrory's prompt action and hopes it will help speed up the rebuilding process. “The full extent of that impact is yet to be realized,” said Davis. “It will be months before the road is open again. I applaud Governor McCrory for his prompt response in declaring a State of Emergency for those areas. McCrory’s Executive Order calls for all state and local government entities and agencies to cooperate in implementing safety and protection measures, facilitating emergency and reimbursement assistance, and communicating with the public. I personally toured some of the affected areas and am committed to doing whatever is within my power to bring much needed support to the areas most in need.”
The damage blocked U.S. 441, effectiviely shutting down the corridor that connects North Carolina to Tennessee. As the most visited park in the country, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park sees 9.4 million visitors a year, which has resulted in a $718 million economic generation for surrounding tourist communities such as the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
According to Jason Lambert, Director of Commerce for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it is still too early to tell the full impact of the landslide. “At this early stage it is difficult to determine the actual economic impact,” he said. “Recent weather events have affected offseason travel as well.”
Repairing the road is crucial for local businesses, who are losing revenue each day. The Smoky Mountain Gold and Ruby Mine, which is located at the bottom of the parkway, is usually open all year long. According to store employee Teresa Burns, Feb. 1 was the store's last day of operation for the season. “We have spent this week winterizing everything, but we are officially closed,” Burns said on Tuesday morning. “We are hoping to be able to open back up April 1, that is just a guess at this point. If we don't open back up, I just don't know what we are going to do.”
The Smoky Mountain Gold and Ruby Mine employs five fulltime and two part-time workers in the winter, and come spring time, they begin to hire additional help. “We probably would hire three or four more people when it started to warm up, but now we are all going to be out of work.”
Burns spent her Monday filing for unemployment benefits to help make it until the store reopens. Other employees at the shop are heading to Florida to work in family stores until the road is repaired.
According to Burns, the store was forced to close due to the lack of business as a result of the landslide. Typically in the winter months, a majority of Cherokee's economy is reliant on people who make day trips over the parkway from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Now that the road is closed, those people are not visiting Cherokee.
“The few customers we have had since the landslide have been people coming to Cherokee for the day after skiing at Cataloochee,” said Burns. “Last week we had a couple up visiting from Florida who wanted to go to Cades Cove, but refused to take the detour to get there because of the extra time it would take. We have also had people who came before the landslide and mined for gems, but are not able to get back to the store to pick up their jewelry so we are having to send it to them.”
In addition to affecting the shop's revenue, the store's closing has forced management to cancel school field trips that have been scheduled for months. “Each year in March and April we have several field trips from schools from Asheville and further who come to the store,” said Burns. “We have had to notify those schools and cancel them because we just don't know if we are going to be open.”
The complete economic standstill is not specific to The Smoky Mountain Gold and Ruby Mine; according to Burns, her husband who works in another store in Cherokee, was laid off a week before she was.
Local officials recognize the adverse impact the natural disaster has had on the area, and are hopeful that crews will be able to act swiftly to minimize damage to the local economy. “The landslide ... obstructing both directions of US Highway 441, will likely result in a significant financial impact for Graham, Jackson and Swain counties and areas within the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian,” said Davis.
Meadows hopes that all avenues are examined in hopes of significantly beating the mid-June projected date. “My goal is to have this road rebuilt as soon as possible to minimize the financial impact on all of Western North Carolina, including Swain County,” said Meadows. “Should the highway be closed into the peak tourism season for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, then businesses in Swain County and those on the reservation will suffer from the lack of tourists traveling to the park. It is my hope that by working together with Federal Highway Administration officials we can reopen the highway by April 15 instead of the projected mid-May to June timeline. I ask that all options are considered to ensure the expedited completion of the highway repairs.”
In hopes of speeding up the process, Meadows has send a letter to Victor Mendez, Federal Highway Administrator, urging him to hasten the reconstruction efforts.