Staff Photo by Dan Henry Randy Jones, pointing at center, a Tennessee Department of Transportation geologist, evaluates road damage with other TDOT employees on Signal Mountain on Wednesday after the southbound lane of Highway 127 washed out after heavy overnight rains.
For years, Signal Mountain officials worried about the potential for a major rock slide or washout along Signal Mountain Road.
The spot where Wednesday's washout occurred had been pegged as a trouble spot, listed by the Tennessee Department of Transportation among 36 sites statewide likely to produce some sort of problem.
On Wednesday, state officials said they still were aware of the danger, but thought repairs had mitigated the problem.
They were wrong.
So much rain fell so quickly Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, a waterfall launched off the rocky bluff above Signal Mountain Road, officially named U.S. 127.
Pouring out so fast and with such force, the waterfall penetrated cracks in the pavement, washed out the dirt below and eventually created a massive road-wash that could inconvenience motorists on the busy highway for months, TDOT officials said.
"It's going to be a pretty big challenge out there," said Ray Rucker, assistant regional TDOT commissioner. "We can't get a crane out there because of the power lines, and it's difficult to access the slope for repairs. We are going to have to get with our construction people and work on a doable plan."
"This is going to be a traffic nightmare," Signal Mountain Mayor Bill Lusk said Wednesday. "Signal Mountain Road is the best, most practical route to and from the mountain."
As recently as September, Mr. Lusk had complained to state transportation officials about the road's lack of safety and problems associated with erosion.
"TDOT's local maintenance folks ... have done as good a job maintaining the roadway as possible, and they keep a close eye on developments," Mr. Lusk said. "Unfortunately, there has not been any money available from the feds or the state to develop a long-term solution to the problem."
Jennifer Flynn, TDOT's region spokeswoman, said there are "over 2,000 sites across the state that we think could produce a problem. And this was one of 36 high-priority sites that we keep a constant watch on."
The state looks for problems, Ms. Flynn said, but it's too costly to fix all the potential problem areas.
Elsewhere in the Chattanooga area, flash flooding Wednesday caused some evacuations, including a mobile home park on Dayton Boulevard.
In Georgia, Chickamauga Creek overflowed its banks in Catoosa County, and several Whitfield County families were stranded in their neighborhoods when bridges washed out.
Some area school districts -- including Hamilton County -- closed Wednesday, and downed trees and utility lines were reported across the area, but school officials said students probably would return to class today.
As for Signal Mountain Road, the roughly 23,000 motorists who travel the two-lane road every day will be forced to deal with one-lane access to the mountain or take detours -- the W Road, Roberts Mill Road and Suck Creek Road -- that many residents find dangerous and slick during cold weather.
TDOT plans to station workers on Signal Mountain Road 24 hours a day, seven days a week to make sure no one comes close to the huge crater that drops several hundred yards to the valley below, Mr. Rucker said. The crews will remain until the road is repaired, he said.
Meanwhile, TDOT geologists and construction crews will try to figure how to repair the roadway. There's no estimate on how long the planning or the repairs might take, and there's the outside chance of rock slides today.
"We are supposed to get a freeze tonight, and that, along with rain, contributes to rock slides," Mr. Rucker said Wednesday.
There has been no shortages of crises associated with rainfall and rock slides lately. First, a rock slide on the Tennessee-North Carolina border closed Interstate 40, the area's major east-west route.
Then, on Nov. 10, U.S. 64 in Polk County, the alternate to Interstate 40, had a rock slide that will close the road for at least two months.
Those slides, and the event that closed Signal Mountain Road, all are attributed to heavy amounts of rain, TDOT officials said.
The U.S. 127 area where a portion of road washed out Tuesday evening has been identified as a problem spot for years.
* January 2005 -- TDOT personnel spot a four-inch dip in the road caused by the settling of the material below the roadway.
* January 2007 -- Signal Mountain Mayor Bill Lusk, then a town councilman, says the road poses an "imminent danger." TDOT personnel examine road, searching for ways to stabilize it. A geologist's report recommends major fixes to "high risk" U.S. 127.
* February 2007 -- TDOT Region Commissioner Bob Brown said the road is safe.
Source: Times Free Press archive
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...