published Friday, August 30th, 2013

Rock slide closes road to Ocoee: Officials are unsure when highway can be reopened

Before Wednesday night's rockslide on Highway 64, debris could be seen poking through fencing from a smaller slide on Monday.
Before Wednesday night's rockslide on Highway 64, debris could be seen poking through fencing from a smaller slide on Monday.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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CORRIDOR K

Many citizens have been clamoring for a new road through the Ocoee River Gorge -- "Corridor K" -- for more than 50 years. Plans for Corridor K involve a wide, four-lane alternative to the narrow, two-lane Highway 64. TDOT has been working on an environmental impact statement for two years and hopes to unveil a draft soon to collect feedback.

"We're fixing it to the point where we draft," said Wes Hughen, project development director. "Hopefully, we'll have a final reckoning of the decision this fall. It takes a long time for agencies to view everything and get it back."

RAFTING

Whitewater rafting operations on the Ocoee River, which were suspended Thursday, are expected to resume today. Those who have rafting trips planned for today are advised to contact their outfitter for information.

OCOEE FEST

The Ocoee Fest event, a two-day festival organized as an end-of-season event for outdoor enthusiasts, music lovers and others, begins at 2 p.m. Saturday at outfitter Adventures Unlimited. Guests should be aware that they may have to use posted detours to reach the festival site on Highway 64.

OCOEE, Tenn. — The third major rock slide in four years along U.S. Highway 64 is leaving Polk County somewhere between a rock and a hard place.

Boulders came crashing down near Madden Branch and state Route 30 on Wednesday evening, closing U.S. 64, the main road through the southern part of the Cherokee National Forest. The slide is in the same area where a November 2009 rock fall stranded Polk County residents for months. Getting around it involves a draining 81-mile detour using U.S. 411 and state Route 68.

TDOT crews started to remove mountain debris Thursday, and officials say they have no idea how long cleaning up the newest headache will take.

"We had a few places with some fallout, but nothing like this," said Ken Flynn, the Tennessee Department of Transportation's Region 2 director of operations.

TDOT's game plan starts with backhoes and dump trucks. The largest rocks are hoisted into the trucks, then hauled away. Even so, the solution creates as many problems as it fixes. Each new scoop can bring an onslaught of new rock and gravel tumbling down the hillside.

"It's still very unstable," said Lyndsay Botts, TDOT chief of staff. "Because it's still sliding, we don't know how long it's going to be. We never want to open until it's completely safe."

"There's just enough pressure down here to continue that [sliding rock] the whole time," Flynn added.

Repairing the rock slides cost nearly $2.1 million in 2009 and $3.8 million in 2010, newspaper archives show. Local business took a financial hit because customers couldn't reach them. Ducktown reported its tax revenue fell 30 percent in 2010.

This slide, state officials say, was spurred by an immense amount of rain this summer. Chattanooga, the closest meteorological measuring site to the area, has received 20 inches more than the average at this point in the year, and 7.36 inches more than average since June, according to National Weather Service data.

"Areas between rock layers get filled in with rain," Flynn said. "As that material dries out, it shrinks, loses traction and falls off."

TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, who visited the slide area Thursday, said there still are cracks in the hill above the highway.

"Until we stabilize it, half of that hill could come down right now," he said. "It's a very dangerous situation."

The aged highway -- part of the nation's first forest scenic byway -- is full of problem areas. About 14 spots in a seven-mile span are classified as "critical safety points."

The complicated paperwork involved in the cleanup can make lifting heavy rocks seem easy. The U.S. Forest Service controls the mountain, the state of Tennessee controls the road and TVA maintains the nearby dam. Working on loose rock requires approval from all three agencies.

"To do slide work, we have to go through the full environmental process unless it's an emergency," Schroer said.

Until a larger strategy of short-term fixes or long-term investments in the Ocoee River Gorge comes through, TDOT has made strides to prevent as many roadway issues -- its prime directive -- as it can. Schroer has identified $10.1 million in projects, including rumble strips and road signage, and the current boulder fallout was contained by steel catch fences installed after 2010's monster tumble.

The fences bent and groaned several feet into the roadway, but the bulk of the rocky mess stayed contained.

"The fences are there to do exactly what they did," Schroer said. "You can see the effectiveness. We've identified areas that are more prone to slides than others, but frankly, it's impossible to predict where a slide may occur."

The latest rock slide comes days before Labor Day weekend, and illustrates exactly what can happen when the outdoor tourism on which the community thrives is shut off from tourists.

Ocoee River whitewater rafting, the heart of the area's economy, was shut down Thursday but may resume today, TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said Thursday evening.

If the problem continues, commuter students at Chattanooga State will see mounting gas expenses, as well as any resident who would rely on the 81-mile detours to visit Cleveland, Tenn., or Chattanooga.

"Our community can't take many more of these," Ducktown Mayor James Talley said while watching dump trucks carry away rubble. "Our residents have really suffered through this."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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