Western North Carolina is bracing itself for the impact of a massive rockslide that will shut down a major chunk of Interstate 40 near the Tennessee border for about three months.
The rockslide occurred 2 a.m. Sunday morning three miles from the Tennessee state line in Haywood County, burying both sides of the highway under a mountain of rubble 150 feet high and 200 to 300 feet wide.
Three vehicles crashed into the rocks shortly after the slide, and one person was transported to the hospital for minor injuries.
“We were very fortunate. There were no serious injuries or fatalities,” said Nicole Meister, spokeswoman for N.C. Department of Transportation.
Since the slide, the N.C. DOT declared an emergency, shut down 20 miles of I-40, and brought in workers to begin surveying the slide site.
The cleanup will cost from $2 to $10 million.
Visitors driving westward to Tennessee are being turned away at exit 20, while locals are getting the go-ahead to sneak up to exit 15, the main road access for the Fines Creek and White Oak communities, as well as the county landfill.
About 25,000 vehicles pass through the closed section of I-40 daily, with about half of those being commercial trucks, according to the NCDOT.
Geotechnical engineers are working with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land, to determine how best to clean up the rockslide.
On Monday, this process involved flyovers with a helicopter and taking numerous pictures of the slide.
Workers will have to take a top-down approach when it comes to removing the rubble.
“If you pull it out from the bottom, it’s going to keep coming,” said Meister.
This stretch of the interstate in Haywood County has been no stranger to slides.
Sunday’s rockslide occurred just a mile and a half down the road from the series of slides that occurred in 1997, which shut down part of the interstate for six months. It is the third major rockslide in that area since the mid-1980s.
Joel Setzer, a division engineer with NCDOT, said the latest rockslide is comprised of more rocks and a lot less soil, compared to the one in 1997.
Setzer said the amount of unstable material above the road seems to be a bigger problem this time around.
“The remedy to stabilizing the slope and restoring the traffic is larger,” said Setzer.
Geotechnical scientists and engineers do not know the exact cause of the slide, but are looking at several potential factors, including possible tremors; freezing and thawing of water in cracks in a wedge in the slope, causing expansion and contraction of the rock plates.