ROCK SLIDE UPDATE
* When: 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday
* Where: Polk County High School, 7200 U.S. Highway 411 N., Benton, Tenn.
COPPERHILL, Tenn. - To Owen Hensley, the closure of U.S. Highway 64 following a November rock slide in Polk County is what led to his brother's death.
Speaking Tuesday night at a forum at Copper Basin High School, Mr. Hensley, who lives in Turtletown, Tenn., said his brother died from a heart attack on Monday because he did not have quick medical transport to hospitals west of Polk County.
"On Monday, the weather conditions were so bad we couldn't fly him out by helicopter," he said. "This is a sad situation ... we need help."
A boisterous crowd of more than 300 people attended the public forum and blasted Tennessee Department of Transportation officials for slow progress on the cleanup of the Nov. 10 rock slide that closed U.S. 64.
The forum was meant to dispel rumors about the project, officials said, but the audience was mostly concerned with building an alternative route to U.S. 64 and cleaning the current slide as quickly as possible.
Jeff Sikes, an engineer with Thompson Engineering, which is overseeing the clean-up project, said the work is moving as fast as possible, but that it is dangerous and there is the potential for more rock slides if workers rush.
"The eastern side (of the rock-fall site) is the side that's going to take some delicate blasting," Mr. Sikes said. "Our challenge is to do this without bringing the whole thing down."
Mr. Sikes estimated that the loose rock remaining on the mountain, if not removed properly, could create a slide just as big as the one workers are now trying to clear.
He stuck by the original projection that the road could be opened by Jan. 15, which brought audible sighs from the audience.
Mr. Sikes said contractors still want to blast more loose rock from the mountainside, but that poses a danger to TVA Dam No. 2, an 80-year-old structure that holds back the Ocoee River and is located within 50 yards of the slide.
"TVA has concerns about the structural integrity of the (nearby) dam," Mr. Sikes said. "We have to be delicate."
The rock slide closed U.S. 64 when Little Frog Mountain, long identified by TDOT and locals as a potential rock slide location, dumped 60,000 tons of rock onto the road and into the Ocoee River below. There are 10 other sites along that highway the state has identified as high risk for future slides.
With the rock slide blocking the main east-west corridor, Polk County residents face increased commute times to work, school and medical care. The two alternate routes - Tennessee Highway 68 or Georgia's portion of U.S. Highway 76 - take about an hour longer to reach Cleveland and Chattanooga.
At Tuesday's forum, the Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency passed around flyers that offered financial aid to commuters and students who have low incomes. Commuters who qualify could receive $8 per day as a reimbursement for gas.
Residents have lobbied for an alternate route since the 1960s, but cost estimates for the proposed corridor come in at between $500 million to $1 billion, according to TDOT.
Tuesday's forum was not meant to discuss that project, although just about all the attendees that spoke said the alternate route was necessary.
"This thing has been talked about since 1960," said Polk County resident Bill Dalton. "There's not one shovel load of dirt being dumped to build that road across the mountain. I don't know how much studying it takes ... but if we had some support from the elected officials, it seems like we could get it done."
One more forum, set for Thursday in Benton, Tenn., will also provide an update and allow public comment on the project.