BENTON, Tenn. — State officials said Thursday it’s too soon to know how long it will take to clean up thousands of tons of dirt, rock and trees that cascaded across U.S. Highway 64 beside Parksville Lake in Polk County early in the day.
Paul Degges, chief engineer with the state Department of Transportation, said a geologist would inspect the site today. Based on what was known about the slide Thursday afternoon, he said, a private firm hired under an emergency contract could be on the site as early as today and perhaps reopen the road within two to five days. "There are a lot of unknowns," Mr. Degges said. "We need to get the highway opened back up as quickly as possible, but we also have to make sure we can make (it) safe for motorists."
Steve Jones, TDOT’s Polk County supervisor, said Thursday that 10 state trucks moved 600 to 700 tons of rock and dirt from the slide area. He said another 150,000 tons, "minimum," likely will need to be shifted. A private landowner has offered a dump site, he said. "Right now, we are essentially operating a rock quarry," he said.
Mr. Jones said he had stopped at the site about 7:30 a.m. Thursday to pick up rocks from the roadway when the slide happened.
"I just opened my door, and it started coming down. I had to back up real fast," he said. "It sounded like the worst thunder you ever heard, and then lightning all mixed together with the trees breaking." "My truck was parked where that tree is," he said, pointing to a pile of collapsed material. "If I had stayed, it would have got crushed. It did get crushed later." A tree fell from the cliff and smashed the truck’s windshield, he said.
Tennessee Department of Transportation workers already on their holiday break were called in from Hamilton and McMinn counties to drive truckloads of rock from the scene. As crews worked to clear the road, new crevices opened up in the rock that still stood above the road. About 3 p.m., workers were ordered away from the site. "There’s more up there that hasn’t turned loose yet that’s going to be coming down just any time," Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Jones and Mr. Degges both said wet weather was likely responsible for the slide. A magnitude 3 earthquake in nearby Tellico Plains, Tenn., was reported by the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center on Dec. 23 but has not been officially linked to the slide.
West Polk County Fire and Rescue had set up roadblocks several miles on either side of the slide by 8 a.m.
"I’m impressed with as many people the Department of Transportation got here as quickly as they did," said Don Longworth, chief of rescue operations for the West Polk County Fire and Rescue.
Local traffic was allowed through to some roads, but through traffic was diverted onto State Route 30 and U.S. 411 to loop around the slide and back to U.S. 64.
Upper Polk County Fire Chief Dale Ray said large trucks will not be able to negotiate the detour and will probably have to reroute through Georgia and Chattanooga.
Emergency services workers said fire and ambulance service to the upper and lower parts of the county should not be greatly affected. Emergency medical cases at Copper Basin Medical Center can be flown out by helicopter, officials said.
But some area businesses said they are going to suffer.
Ducktown Dodge spokesman Peter Brucker said at least 35 percent of his business comes from outside the lower basin area including Cleveland, Athens and other cities.
He said only two of 14 people scheduled for service work on Thursday made their appointments. A long closure would have "a severe effect" on the business, he said.
K & S Tankers, based in Copperhill, sends four to five tanker trucks a day over Highway 64 to haul chemicals from Chattanooga for delivery in North Carolina and Georgia.
Taking alternate routes will add two or more hours travel time to each trip, owner Kenny Stuart said.
State Rep. Chris Newton, R-Benton, who represents the area, said the closure "is going to be a hardship."
"I hope they are able to get this cleaned up relatively quickly," Rep. Newton said. "And that’s another prime reason why, sometime in the future, that we need a new road through there."
Staff writers Randall Higgins and Ron Clayton and staff photographer Tim Barber contributed to this story.
E-mail Randall Higgins at firstname.lastname@example.org E-mail Ron Clayton at email@example.com E-mail Tim Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org Archivist note: also ran in the Metro edition.