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Wednesday, 10 February 2010 17:04

Rescue workers act fast in landslide disaster despite threat of more to fall

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Chris Carver found himself in the unusual position of being both rescuer and evacuee when a massive mudslide struck Rich Cove Road in Maggie Valley on Friday night.

“I live there, right where it stopped,” said Carver, assistant chief of the Maggie Valley Fire Department and one of the first responders on the scene.

Carver was headed to the shower when he heard his pager go off, notifying him of the emergency.

At that point, Carver and his family were unaware that a slide 3,000 feet long and up to 175 feet wide had just sped 30 miles per hour down the mountainside, seriously damaging four houses in its path, and stopping just short of his own. The mountain of mud that slammed the slope at times measured as high as 30 feet.

Carver immediately headed out into the foggy night to make his way up to the slope to begin evacuating his neighbors. Crews from the Maggie Valley police and fire departments joined Carver in the rescue effort just five minutes after a call went out for help at 6:33 p.m.

Rescue workers went door to door, trying to find residents and evacuate them, while police officers secured the roads and set up a blockade. Limited visibility plagued the rescue effort.

“You couldn’t see five inches in front of your face,” said Scott Sutton, chief of Maggie Valley police.

Most residents were unaware of the immense scale of the mudslide at that point, but rescue workers understood that the slide was still potentially active. The threat of a second landslide wave loomed.

“Everybody was uneasy about it,” said Sutton. “You didn’t know what it was, you didn’t know its origin, you didn’t know how far it was.”

But the 50 or so responders from all over Haywood County who worked Friday night were able to maintain their cool during the emergency.

“Everybody stayed calm,” said Carver. “You have to, you got a job to do.”

Some residents walked quite a distance down the hill, abandoning their houses upslope to escape the slide.

“They were shook up a little bit,” said Carver. “Who wouldn’t be?”

A few were able to drive away in their cars, but debris from the mudslide blocked off many other driveways.

Firefighters had to dig mud out to evacuate one woman who was stuck inside her house after the landslide tore off her deck. They were able to rescue her after sending a ladder up to her front door.

Carver said no one appeared to have any major injuries from the slide.

Emergency crews transported residents to a command center at town hall. They were later transferred to a shelter set up by the Red Cross at Maggie Valley United Methodist Church. Some opted to stay with relatives, friends or at a motel instead.

In the next few days, crews gave some residents a lift in all-terrain vehicles back to their homes to help them recover their vehicles and belongings. It was impossible to clear driveways in a few cases.

Most on site now must either walk or utilize ATVs, according to Carver.

“It’s the only way you can maneuver up there,” Carver said.

Kim Czaja, executive director of the Haywood chapter of the Red Cross, commended rescue workers for arriving on scene so quickly.

“I’m quite amazed that no one got hurt,” said Czaja, who still had mud on her shoes Monday after visiting the mudslide zone and assessing damage to individual homes the day before.

“I don’t think there are words to describe the amount of debris,” said Czaja. “It blew me away.”

Assessing the damage

While rescue workers focused on evacuating residents, Greg Shuping, director of Emergency Management for Haywood, was busy preparing for the days ahead.

He called in representation from state emergency management division, the North Carolina Geological Survey and the North Carolina Department of Transportation immediately after the mudslide struck on Friday.

Despite snowfall, Shuping and his crew worked all day Saturday to transport engineers and geologists up the mountain to assess the mudslide and take pictures.

Shuping also coordinated a helicopter ride for town and county officials.

“The value of being able to look down at the entire site and see that footprint...I believe, was very important,” said Shuping.

Maggie Valley Mayor Roger McElroy and Alderman Scott Pauley were two officials who got a bird’s eye view of the mudslide during a helicopter ride.

“It’s a mess,” said Pauley.

McElroy was shocked at how far down the mountain the slide traveled, but said the impressive trajectory was likely due to the sheer drop of the slope.

In McElroy’s view, even the best engineering and technology may not be enough to save houses on such steep slopes in emergencies.

“Under certain circumstances, they just won’t stand up,” said McElroy.

“Bad coincidence”

Haywood County and the Town of Maggie Valley quickly signed off on a disaster declaration over the weekend, making them eligible for state and federal aid.

Local officials have stated representatives from both the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will visit the mudslide site this week.

Officials were already slated to visit the region for another reason, according to Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for N.C. Division of Emergency Management.

They are visiting counties in Western North Carolina to assess damage from December snowstorms to possibly provide funds to local governments to help recoup the cost of removing debris or getting power back up.

That’s not to say the officials can’t have a look at the latest mudslide while they’re here, but Jarema said local governments would have to send in yet another application to request assistance for this slide.

“It’s a different disaster,” said Jarema. “The fact that it’s occurring around the same location is really just bad coincidence.”

Regardless, Shuping said his primary focus now is to coordinate with town, county and state officials, as well as Ghost Town, to bring a safe resolution to the mudslide as quickly as possible.

“We’re asking for any and all assistance on behalf of the town and county,” said Shuping.

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