Meanwhile, Polk County Mayor Hoyt Firestone and Ducktown Mayor James Talley are waiting to see how much more debris might fall onto the roadway.
Tennessee Department of Transportation Region 2 Community Relations Officer Jennifer Flynn said the highway department has worked with state parks and other agencies to resume rafting on the Ocoee River beginning this morning.
She said crews brought as much additional material down Thursday as possible using a trackhoe and a hydraulic hoe ram, which she described as a powerful percussion hammer fitted to an excavator. Hoe rams are used for demolishing concrete structures or rocks and for jobs too large for jackhammering or in areas where blasting is not a good option.
“Our traffic control personnel will be set up accordingly. If the containment area behind the rockfall fence is cleaned up to our satisfaction, we are planning on possibly allowing one lane of traffic through the slide area by midmorning today,” she said. “Drivers will be protected by the containment area, the rockfall fence and by a row of dump trucks parked along the fence to divert any material that might possibly come over the fence.”
TDOT Operations personnel will monitor the situation and stop motorists if necessary.
“This operation will continue throughout the long weekend,” she said.
TDOT Commissioner John Schroer flew to Cleveland Regional Jetport Thursday for the second time within two weeks to discuss U.S. 64/S.R. 40. The first time was to tell local officials of $10.1 million in safety improvements to the road while environmental studies for Corridor K are underway.
“We’re always concerned about rockslides on this road. It’s inevitable we’re going to have them,” he said at the site of the rockslide. “While this one is very significant, it looks like we’re going to be able to clean it up and keep the rockfall fence in place.”
A rockfall fence, similar in appearance to a chain link fence, was installed after the January 2010 slide at mile 11 near S.R. 30 and Maddens Branch. It is the same location as the slide Wednesday evening just before 9 o’clock.
“We think that will solve it for the time being, but this ground is all very unstable. We monitor it and we know we will continue to have rockslides on this road, which is why we’re trying hard to figure out another alternative to this road.”
The alternative is Corridor K, a route on the Appalachian Development Highway System, which starts at Exit 20 on Interstate 75 and ends in Dillsboro, N.C. The portion of Corridor K lying within the project area follows U.S. 64 and is part of the Ocoee Scenic Byway, designated as the nation’s first National Forest Scenic Byway.
The portion of the corridor lies between the Ocoee River and S.R. 68 near Ducktown. Corridor K is part of the Appalachian Development Highway System created in 1965 as part of the Great Society envisioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson. There are two sections of Corridor K not completed: the segment in Polk County and another in North Carolina.
The Corridor K project, initiated in late 2008, is in the National Environmental Policy Act phase. That phase, tentatively scheduled for completion in Spring 2014, was pushed back to fall 2016. Shifts in the project have occurred because of extensive agency coordination and technical analyses that were required during the project development.
Schroer said the problem now is to get through that phase of the project “and we’re a long way off from that. People use this road a lot. It’s a big economic generator for this region and we have to keep it open as best we can, but our first priority is making sure people are safe.”
He agreed the positive aspect of the rockslide is that the rockfall fence worked.
“They’re not pretty, but they work,” he said.
Firestone said the rockslide only reinforced the need to build Corridor K.
“Here’s another slide that shut down our U.S. Highway 64, the main east-west corridor in Polk County on one of the busiest weekends of the season for our commercial traffic. It also interrupts our safety response of fire and rescue, ambulance and law enforcement and it just draws attention to the fact again that we need an improved corridor to get out of this gorge,” Firestone said.
The county mayor said the location of the slide is one of about a dozen spots subject to slides at any given time.
“We’re patching and basically piecemealing the project and we shouldn’t. We should have serious consideration of building Corridor K and getting it completed,” he said.
As Ducktown’s mayor, Talley recognizes and appreciates that TDOT is doing all it can to keep the road open. But, when the first minor slide occurred Monday, he was concerned there would be more debris coming down off the mountainside because of the weather we’ve had.
TDOT Region 2 Director of Operations Ken Flynn said the slide could be weather related.
“It’s a shale material. When it gets wet, they tell me it expands. Now we’ve had this good, dry weather and it’s heating up and drying out. It shrinks and as it shrinks, that expanded extra room that it has — something has to happen because it loses cohesion.”
He said they spent all day Wednesday cleaning out the catchment area behind the rockfall fence.
“But later that evening we had a massive failure and it has filled it up again,” he said. “There is more loose material above that’s still moving and some of those trees and stuff are still shearing and coming down, so we’re afraid to put anyone down below to work on it.”
TDOT rented a trackhoe with an extended boom to reach across the fence, then pull the fallen material off to the side, and let more of the loose material fall.
“If that doesn’t work, then I’m going to have to let a special contract and get somebody up there and get it down,” he said. “We feel like there may be a bigger problem than this. We feel like it may be breaking up in the woods above us up there, so it may be a self-feeding type of thing and as this material comes out, more material will slide down and take its place.”
Talley said his biggest concern lies ahead in the winter, when the ground freezes.
“There’s a good probability, in my opinion, we’ll end up with a big slide like we did before,” he said. “It’s not going to do anything but get worse.”
He said TDOT is doing everything it can to clean up the fallen material, but he, like Firestone, said they need a new road.
“Our community can’t stand many more of these,” the Ducktown mayor said.
At an earlier meeting in the day with the hospital board, it was announced the hospital is setting up to transport all patients by helicopter, but if it rains, then there is no way out for emergency cases, except for an 81-mile detour. At that point, Atlanta or Marietta could be the better options.
He said the loss of Labor Day traffic would be an economic disaster for business. At least two businesses failed in 2009-10 during the big slide “and a lot of businesses are teetering. It wouldn’t take but a weekend or two for tourism to be shutdown, then those businesses would just have to shut down. It’s going to hurt our sales tax, which is what we live off of. Our small community can’t endure much more.”