Hurricanes Wallop Southeast Infrastructure

Fri September 24, 2004 - Southeast Edition
Gwenyth Laird Pernie

(The first in a series of articles to be published in upcoming issues on the rebuilding efforts following the recent rash of devastating hurricanes.)

Following on the heels of Tropical Storm Frances’ ravaging floods that devastated western North Carolina (WNC), Tropical Storm Ivan crashed through the area, uprooting trees, power lines and even pools, causing debris that smashed into homes, businesses and cars.

Both Frances and Ivan brought up to 17 in. of rain to some areas within the region. Along with millions of dollars in losses to businesses, homes, roads and agriculture, nine lives in western North Carolina were lost. This number may increase as rescue workers in Macon County, NC, continue using backhoes and bulldozers to remove entire trees from atop flattened homes.

On Sept. 10, President Bush declared 15 WNC counties major disaster areas as a result of Tropical Storm Frances, and on Sept. 18 again declared 16 WNC counties major disaster areas as a result of Tropical Storm Ivan.

Substantial road damage occurred in McDowell County following the heavy rains of Frances. According to Wade Tate, North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) technician, there were 63 damage sites in McDowell County, ranging in severity from mudslides to down trees.

“The most serious situations in our county were the mudslide on I-40 and the wash out of 200 feet of pavement on U.S. 221,” Tate said.

The Sept. 8 pre-dawn mudslide occurred at the very top of Old Fort Mountain on I-40, 2 mi. west of Black Mountain, NC. Approximately 500 cu. yds. of mud washed into both lanes, covering 100 to 150 ft. of roadway.

“With the help of some private contractors, including Danny Harris Grading of Burke County, the DOT, using their own loaders, dump trucks and haulers, removed the mud from the highway and disposed of it to an off site facility,” Tate said.

All lanes were closed for a short time the morning of the Sept. 8. Later in the day, one lane going in each direction was opened. By the following Thursday, two lanes in each direction were opened.

“Before all lanes will be open,” Tate said, “geologists must finish their assessment of the stability of the embankment and determine how far back to take the slope of the road to ensure its safety.”

He estimated that repairs should be completed by the end of September and that the total cost of the cleanup at Old Fort Mountain will be nearly $1 million.

“The other major area of devastation in McDowell County developed when the north fork of the Catawba River cut a new channel, which sliced through U.S. 221 removing 200 feet of the road, but leaving the bridge,” Tate said. “The Army Corp of Engineers will determined if the river will be left where it is or moved back to the old streambed. Either way, a new highway bridge will be required. The total cost of repair is estimated at $3 million.”

A number of visitor facilities and sections of road along the Blue Ridge Parkway were closed following the flooding from both Frances and Ivan. Much of this was due to six major rockslides; four of these sites involved loss of up to 200 ft. of pavement

According to Phil Noblitt, spokesman for the Blue Ridge Parkway, the ground supporting the road just gave way, taking the pavement with it.

“The highway is built on very steep terrain cut into the mountain. The exposure to rock fall and unstable earth is greater than any other highway in the eastern U.S.” Noblitt explained.

He said that repairs are being evaluated by engineers from the Federal Highway Administration. Contracts to handle repairs will soon be issued. It is estimated that $14 million will be needed to reconstruct that portion of highway, and the project is expected to take at least a year.

West of Asheville, in Haywood and Jackson counties, more than 30 road-damaged sites were reported after Frances.

According to Jonathan Wooard, NCDOT Division 14 district engineer, the area had a tremendous amount of flooding associated with the Pigeon River and the Tuckasegee River.

“Lanes of road were washed out due to slope failures along the edges of the road that parallel the rivers,” Wooard said. “Estimated costs for road repair in Haywood County is $400,000 and in Jackson County is $1 million.”

According to Robert Hollifield, NCDOT transportation supervisor, Buncombe County had approximately 50 sites in need of repair as a result of Frances.

“Much of that is tree and debris removal,” Hollifield said.

Using its own equipment as well as machines rented from Carolina CAT and Briggs, both located in Asheville, the NCDOT is taking care of all clean up.

“There was also severe road damage due to major mudslides along the French Broad River,” Hollifield added. “Repair and clean up of these sites will occur once the Army Corp of Engineers assess the stability of the areas and permits are issued.”

Devastating damage in Buncombe County ensued when floodwater along the Swannanoa River cut a new channel at the river’s north fork, mangling the road and rupturing the water lines buried 8 ft. below the road surface. These five transmission lines carried water from the North Fork Treatment Plant at the North Fork Reservoir near Black Mountain, to approximately 140,000 Asheville area customers.

The floodwaters of Frances also caused the North Fork Reservoir to erode at the bottom of the spillway where the water leaves the reservoir. Taylor and Murphy, of Asheville, NC, was brought in to assess damage control of the reservoir prior to Ivan striking the area.

According to Chris Britton, structure division manager of Taylor and Murphy, rip raps and large boulders were placed at the bottom spillway of the reservoir to protect the water plant and contain the water once it leaves the spillway.

“We were not quite finished when Ivan hit,” Britton said, “but enough rock had been hauled in to protect the dike from further erosion.”

Catastrophic environmental contamination to the area occurred when floodwaters from the Swannanoa River knocked over several tanks at the Smoky Mountain Petroleum Company on Swannanoa River Road in downtown Asheville, spilling diesel fuel into the river, which empties into the French Broad River nearby. Some estimates put the size of the spill at 100,000 gal. Pollution problems also developed as a result of thousands of gallons of sewage dumping into the Pigeon River after floodwaters forced the shutdown of the waste treatment facility servicing Canton and a 12-in. sewage line broke in Clyde, NC.

The U.S. Coast Guard, from Fort Pierce, FL, along with the EPA and local environmental officials are working on the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers in Buncombe County, the Pigeon River in Haywood County and the North Toe River along the Mitchell and Yancey county lines. They are cleaning up dangerous debris and chemicals, including 75 home heating oil tanks, 200 55-gal. drums, five 30,000-gal. fuel storage tanks and two 20,000-gal. tanks.

Biltmore Village, a collection of restaurants and shops catering to thousands of tourists visiting the nearby Biltmore Estate, was decimated when fierce floodwaters of the Swannanoa River from first Frances and then Ivan engulfed the business district. The floods transformed the trendy shopping and dining area into a sea of brown water devastating the village just prior to the fall tourist season.

Eight days after Frances obliterated WNC, the region was again struck by another more devastating Tropical Storm –– Ivan. With sustained winds of 30 to 60 mph and heavy rains, Ivan ravaged homes, businesses, roads, and agricultural, and tragically took the lives of nine individuals in the WNC.

The storm’s path across the South and Northeast left at least 50 people dead. Earlier, it was blamed for 70 deaths in the Caribbean. The president has declared disaster areas in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina, freeing up federal money for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans and other programs.

Ivan now ranks as the fifth-deadliest U.S. hurricane since 1960. Additionally, the North Carolina Geological Survey reported that Ivan caused more than 30 landslides in the state. These landslides were largely responsible for the closure of more than 150 roads in the mountains. Furthermore the storm knocked out water to many in the region and power to some 200,000 residents.

Following the heavy rains of Ivan, 4 mi. of I-40, near the Tennessee border, was closed because the earth completely eroded along a 400 to 500 ft. section of the road, with a 150 ft. drop off right into the Pigeon River. Workers opened the road with one lane of travel in either direction on Sept. 19, but it may be weeks before all lanes are open. Estimated cost of repair to this section of I-40 is at least $5 million.

Total cost estimates for damages from the two storms has yet to be determined. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in the process of declaring the total short and long-term rebuilding costs to Western North Carolina.

According to Katie Norman, Deputy Press Secretary for the Office of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, of North Carolina, is seeking disaster relief funding following Hurricane Frances and secured at least $60 million to be included in the President’s budget request to Congress.

She also is strongly supporting a measure to provide funds for agricultural damage incurred from adverse weather and storms during both 2003 and 2004 crop years. She is continuing this week to work on additional funding for Ivan damages as well.

“There will undoubtedly be an economic hit as this region works to fully rebuild and recover from Frances and Ivan,” Norman said. “Senator Dole will do everything possible to get expedited funds through the Small Business Administration so businesses can receive aid to help them get back on their feet. She is also trying to get the word out that Western North Carolina should still be a destination for visitors who come to see the beautiful fall foliage.”