While residents wait for answers and 16,000 tons of debris hangs precariously over the Rich Cove community, an army of people are assessing the aftermath of the latest landslide in Maggie Valley.
Representatives from the North Carolina Geological Survey, the Division of Water Quality and the Division of Land Quality have all made trips up the steep mountain to survey the slide site.
Haywood County’s contingent includes its erosion and sediment control team and the county engineer, while geologists from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and an engineer from Ghost Town in the Sky have also studied the impact firsthand.
Yet, not one of these experts has officially determined the clause of the mudslide, which traveled more than a half-mile down the slope, seriously damaging several homes and leading to the evacuation of 45 residents.
They won’t say if the slide is a natural disaster or caused by failed retaining walls on the slope, a terraced system that dates to various time periods. The answer could make all the difference for homeowners, whose insurance policies won’t cover a natural landslide.
For Kurt Biedler, the lingering question is not simply when he’ll return home, but if he’ll be able to go back at all. The foundation of Biedler’s house has been compromised and cracks riddle its walls.
Though Biedler plans to move south of Asheville for now, he is closely watching the response to the slide.
“When one gets displaced from their home, there’s a million questions we have,” said Biedler. “But we know it takes time to get the answers.”
Can’t get there from here
The place to go looking for answers undoubtedly rests at the top of the mountain, where Ghost Town’s retaining walls clearly gave way. Whether they caused the slide or the slide caused their failure is still being debated.
But getting up the mountain to fix what’s left has now become an ordeal. The landslide has thrown major debris across at least two parts of Rich Cove Road, blocking the only direct path to Ghost Town by vehicle.
Early Thursday afternoon, a team of geologists from N.C. Geological Survey made their third trip to the slide, along with Marc Pruett, Haywood County’s erosion control officer; and Mark Shumpert, Haywood County engineer.
Fie Top Road provides one detour to the top, climbing up west of the slide on Rich Cove.
Halfway up the road, the team must make a pit stop at a staging area set up on the side of Fie Top. The two trucks are armored with snow chains to tackle the narrow, icy road ahead that snakes across the mountain toward Ghost Town.
But the road only leads so far, and they eventually park the trucks and hike down a steep, snow-covered path.
Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C. Geologic Survey, said the main goal that day was to familiarize themselves with the site, collect information, take photographs and define hazardous areas that are prone to landslides in the future.
“Public safety is the important thing at this point. That’s really our focus,” said Wooten. “We’re really not in the position or have the expertise to assess the wall. We’re geologists and not engineers.”
Still, Wooten has said that heavy snowmelt and more than two inches of rain both contributed to the slide. He has put in a request with the National Weather Service to compile a weather synopsis of the weeks and months leading up to the event.
Back on Ghost Town’s property, geologists measured cracks in the ground, just yards away from children’s rides stopped in mid-air. Some of these cracks were so deep that geologists needed the aid of a meter-long hiking pole to discover where the crevice ended.
A major source of worry for Wooten and his team continues to be moving land near the slide that has been vertically displaced by almost four feet. At first, the drop had measured only three feet.
“That’s why this is an area of concern,” said Wooten.
Meanwhile, Shumpert hopped over the fence to take a closer look at the retaining wall. Since this was the first time Shumpert was getting a close look at the structure, he said he was not prepared to make any official statements.