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Nearly 50 mudslides plague North Carolina

2:09 PM, Jan 17, 2013   |    comments
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"We've had four in Cherokee County, three in Clay County, 23 in Graham County, eight in Haywood, 10 in Jackson, two in Macon, six in Swain and none in Henderson, Polk and Transylvania." Said Joel Setzer, district engineer for District 14, which comprises the 10 westernmost counties.

Setzer noted that these are only slides on DOT-maintained roads. More have occurred on private roads.

Most of the slides have been from smaller embankments that overhang roadways, Setzer said, and so far the failures have not caused any wrecks. When the embankments fail, earth and debris slides onto the road.

So far, DOT crews have been able to clear all of these slides, working through the night in some cases. One on Cherohala Skyway is more severe, though, and likely will result in that road being closed, Setzer said.

Also closed is Bulldog Drive in Murphy. The foundation of the bridge over the Valley River has been compromised.

"When the flood came up, it piled up debris on the bridge piers and started a new path around the end supports of bridge," Setzer said. "That undermined the piers that are embedded into the ground."

That closed the road, which serves Murphy High and Middles schools, as well as a Lowe's Home Improvement store. An alternate entrance is available, but it takes longer to get in, Setzer said.

DOT crews will have to wait till the weather clears and the Valley River recedes to assess whether the bridge can be repaired or will have to be replaced.

Setzer said they are also closely monitoring Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River Gorge, the site of numerous rock slides since the 1960s, with the latest coming in 2009.

"We're hopeful the number of slides will be subsiding, as the intensity of rain is not is predicted to be as high as it has been," Setzer said. "What we are concerned about now is what the freeze-thaw cycle will do because the water table is so high. That's where we start to have concerns about I-40."

When temperatures drop and the water table is up, water in the crevasses of rocks freezes and thaws, causing a wedging action that can cause rock to split and give way.

The DOT has a technological monitoring system at the 2.5-mile marker, where a significant rock slide occurred in 2009. So far, the system has given no indication of problems, but with temperatures predicted to drop tonight, Setzer said they will have to watch it closely.

"We also are visually monitoring with a keen eye the rock slope at mile marker 7, which just before Christmas shed some rock onto the shoulder of I-40, and some into a travel lane," Setzer said.

The DOT's Incident Management Assistance Patrols, which help stranded motorists, also are visually monitoring the I-40 corridor for any indications of slides, Setzer said.

"We haven't noticed any sign of rockfall s on I-40 the last couple of weeks, but we are mindful of the current weather," Setzer said.

Work crews in the 10 westernmost counties will have to shift gears this afternoon to ready for predicted snowfall tonight. They'll bring the trucks working slides in, install scraper blades and spreaders and prepare to load them with salt and sand, Setzer said.

The DOT is using all its workers and has called in a few contractors to help out with the load, he said.

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