“We are too scared to drive down this road,” Parker said.
After the first slide, engineers with the N.C. Department of Transportation inspected the slide, pushed aside the wall of dirt and fallen trees blocking the road, and deemed it safe for residents to return.
But less than 48 hours later, it slid again. It underscores the often imperfect nature of landslides in the mountains. DOT officials knew the slide site wasn’t entirely stable, but the ground was too wet to fix it right away. They had a choice: advise residents not to go back to their homes indefinitely until the site could be shored up, or accept the risk that it wasn’t an altogether perfect situation.
“Safety is a relative term. We did deem the road was safe to reopen, and we believe that the decision that it was relatively safe was accurate at the time,” said Joel Setzer, head of a 10-county division of the DOT in the mountains. “We believe the road to be as safe, if not safer, as our other roads in the mountains.”
While residents might be gun shy after back to back slides last week, Setzer said the second slide actually went a long way toward making the whole situation safer.
Essentially, the unstable portion of slope has now finished sliding. Plus, drier conditions allowed the DOT to do some stability work in the interim.
The first landslide occurred Monday, May 6. Along with large quantities of dirt, the slide carried trees and even a storage building down the mountainside and plopped them in the middle of a switchback in the road, trapping 40 people in homes above the site of the slide.
DOT officials arrived and cleaned up the mess, pushing the debris to the sides of the roadway to allow vehicles to pass. A geotechnical engineer assessed the slide.
“The slide area had indicators that additional sliding may occur, and the risk for additional sliding was very much associated with the amount of additional rain that might be received,” Setzer said.
But it was too wet to do anything about it.
“It was determined that we did not need to have equipment on the unstable area until dryer conditions,” Setzer said.
In the meantime, DOT put a monitoring schedule to place to keep an eye on the slide site.
Come Wednesday morning, DOT crews were on-site again after more debris slid down the mountain, blocking the road once again. The second slide originated higher up on the mountainside, but followed a similar path as the first.
“We have been stuck all day,” Parker said Wednesday.
And for the second time in a week, her three children missed a day of school because they could not leave their house.
“These kids really needed to go to school today,” she said.
Parker and others who live on Holder Branch went down to the site of the slide Wednesday to find DOT employees taking ice cream scoops out of the mountainside and packing down dirt to prevent further damage. The second slide had created a vertical wall of loose soil, Setzer said.
“There is no soil that will stand vertically. It will fall,” Setzer said.
A geotechnical engineer was again on hand and this time devised a temporary fix to shore up the slide site in the hopes that no other slides occur before DOT is able work on a permanent solution. Now, the road has once again been termed “safe.”
“We believe the road is now even safer since the additional area wanting to slide has fallen, and the overburden on top has been removed, which we did on a dryer day,” Setzer said.
Although Parker is fearful anytime she drives down Holder Branch now, she said she just has to deal with it until DOT can make time to complete the long-term repairs.
“We don’t really have anywhere else to go. We don’t have a choice,” Parker said. “We stressed to them the importance of doing it the right way.”
DOT already has a backlog of landslide sites that still need to be fixed after a steady barrage of rainfall back in January, not to mention the recent rash from last week’s heavy rains, so Holder Branch will just have to wait in line. While DOT geotechnical engineers can make a quick trip to advise on emergency repairs, finding the time for a lasting fix is difficult, given the workload they have, Setzer said.
“I think where they will be stretched is when they have to go to these sites and recommend permanent repairs,” he said.
Until then, the department will keep a close eye on Holder Branch Road.
“We established that we wanted to check it every 24 hours during dry conditions, and during and after rains, we want to check it every six hours depending on the intensity of the rain,” Setzer said.
While Parker is keeping her fingers crossed that the mountainside above the road will stay in place, DOT officials are hoping for a sustained period of sunshine that will give them the opportunity to mark off some items on its ever-growing to-do list.
“What we really need is a nice long period of dry weather,” Setzer said.
An older woman who lived at the foot of the Holder Branch slide was evacuated briefly as crews worked Wednesday. Although officials have declared the mountainside safe once again, she decided to find alternative housing for the foreseeable future because she is does not yet feel comfortable enough to return, said Greg Shuping, director of Haywood County Emergency Management.