Contractors say they mostly are finished removing loose rock from the western portion of Little Frog Mountain, where a rock slide closed U.S. Highway 64 on Nov. 10.
That's the first of three major milestones in getting Polk County's main east-west corridor opened for traffic again.
But there are still heaps of work to be done and tons of fallen rock to be removed. All the while, a conservative project deadline of Jan. 15 is looming.
"From the onset, we knew and reported that it would take at least eight weeks to complete the project," said Jeff Sikes, project manager for Thompson Engineering, which is doing the work. "The eastern side of the slide will dictate whether we are able to substantially complete the work closer to the 'at least eight weeks' timeline or whether it will take longer."
There are essentially three phases of the project. The first is the western portion of the rock wall, which had a large amount of loose rock hanging over the roadway. Most of that dangerous rock has been blasted and removed, Mr. Sikes said.
Then there is the actual slide, which still covers the road. About 100 dump-truck loads of the estimated 3,000 loads have been removed, he said.
Finally, the trickiest part of the cleanup is the eastern portion of the rock wall. Large amounts of rock still need to be blasted from that area, but Mr. Sikes said the dam holding back the Ocoee River -- which sits right underneath the rock wall on the other side of U.S. 64 -- is an obstacle.
To do the work, they must use "small, controlled blasts to reduce the possibility of setting off a second slide on top of Ocoee Dam No. 2," Mr. Sikes said.
Construction crews have assembled a 12-foot-high, 100-foot-long rockfall fence that will sit atop TVA Dam No. 2 to protect it from falling rock, Tennessee Department of Transportation officials said in a news release.
Already, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the dam, has installed special devices to monitor any changes in already-existing cracks in the dam.
All the cleanup efforts are complicated by tight quarters at the work site. The road is only 20 feet wide, so every time a load of rock needs to be removed by truck, crews must move the massive crane that is essential to chipping away and moving much of the rock.
A more firm completion date could be coming shortly, once work begins on the eastern side of the slope, Mr. Sikes said. That could happen within a week to 10 days, he said.
Residents, however, are growing weary of the road closure. U.S. 64 was the major route used by residents in Ducktown and Copperhill, Tenn., to access medical care, retailers and employment in Cleveland and Chattanooga.
The rock slide also tumbled right on top of the ramp that whitewater rafters use to get into the river. The dozen or so rafting companies that put tens of thousands of tourist into the river are watching the project closely.
At least one says he expects the project to be completely finished by the March opening of the rafting season.
"We're confident it will be open," said Carlo Smith, owner of Adventures Unlimited. "If it's not open by then, I think we've got much bigger problems."
Even if the rafting season, which draws major tourism dollars to otherwise economically depressed Polk County, isn't affected, many residents are feeling the pinch, he said.
"People who live in Copperhill and Ducktown (and work in Cleveland, Dalton or Chattanooga) have an hour or an hour and a half added to their commutes every day," Mr. Smith said. "Fortunately, gas prices have subsided somewhat, but it's still a major expense."
Construction crews hauled approximately 160 truck loads of debris -- more than 3,500 tons -- from the rock slide on Saturday and Sunday, a news released from TDOT stated.