Roads reopened after multiple landslides

By DeeAnna Haney | May 08, 2013

Dozens of people were stranded at their homes Monday after heavy rains led to landslides across the county.

The mountain above Holder Branch Road off Highway 19/23 in Canton gave way around 7 a.m. taking down large trees, blocking entire roads and even destroying one woman’s utility building.

A 60-year-old woman was evacuated safely to a nearby hotel after the landslide missed her rental home by only a few feet. The slide covered nearly 125 feet of road, shutting down the only point of entry and exit for the nine other homes above the slide.

About 40 people were affected by the slide and were unable to leave their homes until Monday evening. Fire department crews drove an ATV house to house to check on residents and found that no one was injured.

NCDOT crews worked steadily with back hoes, bulldozers and dump trucks to open up one lane by 8 p.m., but there is plenty more work to be done.

Art Hartzog, county maintenance manager for NCDOT, said roads are now open and passable, but drivers should use caution. He said engineers are still assessing damage and it's too early to know when the landslide will be cleaned up.

“A more permanent solution is yet to be determined,” he said.

Despite being unable to drive out of their homes, Fred and Sandy Wright, who live near the slide, met their children at the interstate for supplies.

“It could be an inconvenience, but we have means and we take care of each other,” they said in a Facebook message.

The couple took photos of the slide on one part of the road, which was impassable from a pile of mud and trees.

The N.C. Highway Patrol landed a helicopter on U.S. Highway 19/23 and gave Hartzog an areal view of the slide. He said pictures from above will help engineers assess the damage and come up with a solution.

NCDOT officials believe a fill slope above the switchback on the road was the source of the slide, according to a press release Monday.

Although an electrical line on the lower end of the road was downed, all the homes above the slide maintained power.

Authorities say a landslide occurred in the exact area in January 1998, at which time NCDOT created an access road to the highway for residents. But that road was not accessible to residents after the most recent slide.

There were also several other smaller landslides across the county. Around 8:30 p.m. Sunday, land gave way on Groundhog Road, just beyond Holder Branch Road. That slide took out several trees and mailboxes and blocked two residences from their driveways.

Hartzog said the main road is accessible now, but the two driveways are still blocked.

Center Pigeon Fire Chief Johnny Pless said his crews evacuated one family after mud from the construction on U.S. 276 came into their driveway. The American Red Cross provided a hotel room for them and the landowner moved them to another trailer temporarily.

A motorist said the DOT contractor was working on the Waynesville mountain repair project late into the night Monday, using floodlights and diverting traffic through a detour route. By early Tuesday morning, a repaved road nearer to the mountain side of the roadway was opened.

Two other mudslides forced some residents on Cathy Cove Road to take back roads to access their homes.

“Everybody could get in and out through a different route. We did evacuate three residents early Monday morning and the Red Cross took care of them. We allowed them to go back in after daylight to assess their property,” Pless said.

Another small landslide forced crews to close one lane on Dutch Cove Road in Canton.

“At this point unless there are people in danger it’s turned over to DOT and the homeowner’s association at the Cathy Cove Road slide,” Pless said.

Hartzog said NCDOT is making a list of damaged areas and assessing them for a solution, with the landslide on Holder Branch Road as a top priority.

The landslides were in the aftermath of heavy rains in Haywood for the past week, with an estimated 3 inches of rainfall occurring in the 24 hours prior to the slide.

Marc Pruett, directory of county erosion control said a wet winter followed by a wet early spring contributed to flooding and landslides over the weekend.

"We had big storms last weekend and the ground water table is so high right now. The soils are so saturated that it doesn’t take much rain to really cause landslides," he said.

All of the recent landslides were associated with manmade work on slopes, he pointed out.

"During the rains that happened in the middle of January when we had several slope failures, there was only one natural landslide that happened. That says to me that it might be good to assess each one of those situations as good as we can, learn from what happened and see what we can apply through better construction practices," Pruett said.