Rockslide Shuts Down Interstate 40

fromWUOT

One hundred fifty feet high and 300 feet wide: That's the size of a massive rockslide that last month shutdown Interstate 40 near the Tennessee-North Carolina line. Engineers now say it won't be until February when the highway reopens.

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In Western North Carolina, a major interstate has been closed since last month because of a huge rockslide. Travelers moving on I-40 near the Tennessee state line are having to add at least an hour to their trips.

Matt Shafer Powell of member station WUOT examines how the rockslide is changing the area's landscape and economy.

MATT SHAFER POWELL: Near the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, I-40 takes you through a breathtaking stretch of the Smokey Mountains. Streams and waterfalls seem to appear out of nowhere and colossal walls of gray and yellow rock tower over the roadway. Beautiful, yes, but dangerous, too.

(Soundbite of traffic report)

Unidentified Woman: I-40 eastbound in Tennessee is closed at Mile Marker 451, due to a rockslide in North Carolina. I-40 will remain closed until further notice.

POWELL: On October 25th, one of those walls gave way. About 60,000 tons of rock crashed onto the highway below, blocking it in both directions. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries. Now, the roughly 23,000 cars, semis and campers that normally drive this piece of interstate each day have been rerouted. And they've been replaced by bulldozers, front-end loaders and these enormous six-foot machines called pole rams. Imagine a giant jackhammer.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mike Patton is a technician with the North Carolina Department of Transportation. He's standing in the middle of one of the eastbound lanes at the foot of the still unstable slide.

Mr. MIKE PATTON (Technician, North Carolina Department of Transportation): When you look up there right now, I mean, you could pick out at least 50 different rocks, you know, some the size of toasters and some the size of Volkswagens that you would say, okay, what exactly is holding that rock up there right now?

POWELL: Patton says crews will dig out the unstable rock in the wall, let it slide down into the road, break it up with the pole rams and haul it away. Other workers will move along the ridge top. They'll drill holes in the bigger rocks, pack them with explosives and blow them up. It's a painstaking, dangerous process.

Mr. PATTON: Everybody wants the road open, but I don't think anybody wants to see somebody get killed trying to open the road. And we have to make sure that the final product is safe.

POWELL: About five miles east of the slide, things are much quieter, in fact, maybe too quiet. Those businesses along the highway that depend on I-40 traffic have taken a nosedive since all those cars and trucks have been rerouted.

Sally Butts works at the Pigeon River Smokehouse, a combination convenience store and barbecue joint.

Ms. SALLY BUTTS: It's like a ghost town. And especially at night, when it gets dark, I know the owner says it's really eerie to be over here because there's no one around.

POWELL: Butts says her bosses aren't sure if they'll even make it through the winter. But not everyone is suffering. Up in Johnson City, Tennessee, the Convention and Visitors Bureau predicts the hour-long detour through their town could inject an additional $48 million into the local economy. The bureau's Brenda Whitson says businesses are offering discounts for irritated, exhausted travelers forced to take the detour.

Ms. BRENDA WHITSON (Convention and Visitors Bureau, Johnson City, Tennessee): This is a way for us to say, you know, here's a city that's ready to welcome you, to help ease some of the pain that you may be experiencing because of, you know, your unforeseen delay.

POWELL: I-40 will eventually reopen, probably in a couple months. When that happens, travelers will once again be able to soak in the beauty of that stretch of interstate along the Tennessee-North Carolina line. Chances are, though, they'll find themselves peeking up from time to time and having a little more respect for those signs that say: watch for falling rock.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Shafer Powell.

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