Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ghost Town in the Sky—September 2010

Haywood County, North Carolina Landslide Hazard Map

Unpublished 2005 Haywood County Stability Index Hazard Map.
Risk models show that 49% of Haywood County land is unstable.

Ghost Town in the Sky Landslide

Photos of Ghost Town in the Sky landslide damage—Asheville Citizen-Times
video provided by WSPA News

On February 5, 2010 sections of a Ghost Town in the Sky landslide-prevention wall failed releasing a debris flow that damaged homes and Rich Cove Road.

Since this hazardous-land event, state geologists report that areas adjacent to the slope failure remain at risk and are classified “an imminent threat.” Other than a federal $1.3 million grant, there are no funds available to repair these likely-to-fail slopes. (Ghost Town Partners LLC, the entity responsible for Ghost Town in the Sky business decisions, has been under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since March 2009)

Engineers investigating the hazard site have recommended removing the approximately 16,000 tons of loose soil and taking the slope back to its natural contours. This proposal has been blocked by Ghost Town Partners.

It is remarkable that Ghost Town investors have any voice in this matter. The retaining walls at issue (cost $600,000) were constructed in 2007-2008 without permit and required inspection. In March 2009, the date of Ghost Town Partners, LLC bankruptcy filing, company officials were notified by a contract engineer that the “ MSE wall is not functioning as intended at this time and structural failure of the wall is possible if not replaced.” (Pat Burgin, Engineer-Ghost Town in the Sky Retaining Wall Report)

As the following archived article details, Ghost Town executives knew that they had a serious site problem.
'Could have been twice as bad' The Mountaineer
Beth Pleming—February 10, 2010

Engineer says measures at Ghost Town mitigated Rich Cove slide

MAGGIE VALLEY — An engineer overseeing repair work where a giant mudslide originated Friday said the disaster could have been twice as bad and perhaps fatal had owners of the mountaintop amusement park not been proactive in trying to correct a problem.

Meanwhile, Rich Cove Road residents are still unable to return home both because the road is blocked and because more wet weather has authorities nervous about the prospect of a second slide.

An additional 12,000 to 16,000 tons of material— at least twice the amount that flowed down from the top of the mountain Friday night—is hanging loosely behind a retaining wall at one edge of Ghost Town in the Sky park property. Officials fear that the right amount of precipitation could break the material loose.

Rick Wooten, a geologist with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said recent snowfall, followed by heavy rains on Feb. 5, triggered the slide that originated at the retaining wall. However, an investigation continues on what caused the slide and what role the retaining wall played in the disaster.

Issues surrounding the wall have been a slippery slope for quite some time, said engineer Pat Burgin, who was hired by Ghost Town to inspect the wall in 2008 when problems first became apparent. Amusement park officials had been working to stabilize the area before bad weather hit.

Had Ghost Town officials not already removed a substantial amount of material from the slide site, Friday’s disaster would have been much worse and likely fatal, said Burgin.

“Present (park) owners kind of inherited a problem from the previous group of investors,” Burgin said.

Shortly after Ghost Town Partners, LLC purchased the park in 2006, Caroline-A-Contracting of Maggie Valley was hired to build a retaining wall. Construction was complete in 2008. The company was paid more than $600,000 for the job, leaving an outstanding balance of more than $28,000 owed to the contractor.

“That was the wall that began to fail shortly after the contractor finished it,” Burgin said.

Through their attorney, Russell McLean, Caroline-A-Contracting filed a lien against Ghost Town in the amount of monies owed. Park officials contested the balance with a counterclaim, filed May 20, 2009, alleging breach of contract based on allegations the wall was improperly constructed. At that time, the case was essentially put on hold until bankruptcy matters could be resolved.

“I looked at it and determined it was not done properly and was an unsafe situation,” said Burgin. “The contractor who built it didn’t build it right. It was a bad job.”

Burton Edwards, owner of Caroline-A-Contracting, disagrees.

“Mr. Burgin is wrong,” he said. “The professional engineer on the project was my uncle Verlin (Edwards), and he is an excellent engineer. (The wall) was designed properly and built properly because he was there everyday when it was put in.”

When the wall was constructed, the county’s slope ordinance had not been adopted, but would not have applied anyway since the area falls under the jurisdiction of Maggie Valley where there is no slope ordinance. The town relies on the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to handle permit issues.

If a land-disturbing activity exceeds 1 acre, a plan must be prepared to obtain a permit.

“I don’t recall a state permit on that and don’t know how much disturbance there was,” said Janet Boyer, regional engineer for the department’s land quality section. “If it was under an acre, there wouldn’t have been a plan required. Occasionally people have work done over an acre and people don’t get an approved plan or notify us. I may be talking to them in the future about plan to fix it and the cleanup.”

The contractors’ design choice was not the most suitable type for that location, Burgin said of the mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) wall.

“It is the opinion of the engineer, based on site observations, experience with local soil properties and MSE structure design, the primary cause of the MSE wall movements are due to improper construction of the wall,” states Burgin’s initial report. “The soil reinforcement component of the design may be inadequate and/or improperly installed. In addition, the design of the wall may be incorrect for the specific site. The MSE wall is not functioning as intended at this time and structural failure of the wall is possible if not replaced.”

When park officials noticed asphalt cracks around the wall, the contractor was the first person called, said Burgin.

“(The contractor) denied doing anything wrong, and blamed the problem back on Ghost Town,” Burgin said.

Edwards claims there are sewer and water line issues near the wall that are “beyond our control.”

“There’s a lot of things we want to know, too,” said Edwards. “Everybody needs to do their research before they go pointing fingers.”

When problems surfaced Ghost Town officials began removing the wall and taking steps to make the area safer.

Burgin visited this site about six months ago and said nearly one-third of the material had been removed by another contractor hired by Ghost Town.

Luckily, contractors had cleared a flat area below the wall to act as a safety net.

“They were basically doing everything they could do to prevent a hazard,” he continued. “If not, (the Friday slide) would have taken out houses instead of washing up behind them, and there would have been at least twice as much material come down that mountain, if not more. They were very proactive in trying to stop this thing in its tracks. Then came the rain. The wall gave way, and when it did the safety area caught a considerable amount of the material, probably half of it. The rest of it washed down the road.”

Geologists measured the slide and said it was about 3,000 feet long, 80- to 90-feet wide and reached up to 175-feet wide in some places. Fortunately, there were no houses in the direct path. The flow of mud took out the backside of one home and caused minor damage to three others, in addition to causing road damage.

“The slide did more damage to (Ghost Town) property, to their road, than anywhere else,” said Burgin. “It totally washed out their road.”

In several other places, mud and debris blocks road access, but does not appear to have washed out the road. Rich Cove Road is the steepest state maintained road in North Carolina and it the responsibility of the state transportation department to repair and maintain.

DOT officials did not return messages by press time, and no timeline for clean up of the road has been offered.

The American Red Cross of Haywood County is assisting with victims’ needs in the meantime, in collaboration with other nonprofits, including the Salvation Army. Donations from private individuals, including Ghost Town in the Sky and $1,500 collected as part of Jonathan Valley Elementary School’s penny war has also been contributed to the cause.

Maggie town leaders and county commissioners declared the site a disaster area, which is the first step toward seeking federal relief funds. Representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were scheduled to visit the site Monday, but postponed the visit until today.

With regard to the park’s upcoming season, slated for a May opening, park CEO Steve Shiver called the “latest monkey wrench just one more in a long history of challenges for Ghost Town.”

“We were moving quickly to reopen for the 2010 season,” he said. “This is very unsettling and uncomfortable for us, and Maggie Valley as a whole is obviously going to be affected for this season. Historically we’ve been opening May 15, there’s no way we can open in May now. Pushing back our opening date will mean fewer overall visitors in the valley throughout the duration of the season.”

While awaiting results of a bankruptcy proceeding, the park continues to pursue funding options, but is now also at the mercy of DOT who must clear the road before park officials can proceed with clean up and repair work on Ghost Town property.

“They are literally caught between a rock and a hard place, no pun intended,” said Burgin.
The Ghost Town in the Sky landslide disaster would be a historic footnote except for the efforts of the Smoky Mountain News and The Mountaineer.

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