As a result of last week's torrential rainfall accumulations, a portion of road on the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway connecting Cherokee and Tennessee, was swept away in a landslide. The first assessment of the landslide which occurred along Newfound Gap Road in North Carolina shows that the landslide is approximately 90,000 cubic yards of material or 350-400 feet — around the length of a football field — and 45-50 feet deep.
According to Molly Schroer with the National Park Service Public Affairs department, as of Tuesday, the slide is still active and an assessment team made up of park staff and Federal Highway Administration employees, have observed debris continuing to fall.
The park does not yet have an estimated time frame for the road to reopen. Federal Highway and park staff are continuing to look at the site to assess options for repair and are hoping to have a rough estimate sometime in the next week. “We are in the process of coming up with plans, designs and a schedule of action to repair the road after the landslide,” said Schroer.
A final assessment and accurate determination of how long the rebuilding process with take is expected later this week.
While the National Park Service continues their evaluation of the damage, businesses in Cherokee are patiently awaiting a verdict. Much of Cherokee's winter commerce is reliant on traffic from people commuting from Tennessee to North Carolina. Since the landslide, Cherokee businesses have ultimately seen a drastic drop in visitors.
“At this time we are awaiting word from the National Park Service and the Federal Highways Administration on the plan for repairing the slide area,” said Jason D. Lambert, director, Division of Commerce, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “We do not have any estimates. Once we obtain that information we will immediately work that into our strategies for minimizing the economic impact on Cherokee.”
According to Lambert, the landslide has already taken a toll on the local economy.
“While we are still gathering our data, it is safe to say that Cherokee businesses did not have as good of a holiday weekend as they would if Hwy. 441 had been open,” he said. “We are most concerned about our non-gaming tourism businesses and the adverse effect the closure will have on them.”
With estimates floating around that the road will remain closed until March, Lambert explained that plans to counter the adverse effects are already being developed.
“The Division of Commerce is taking the lead in responding to this unfortunate situation,” he said. “Our primary concern is the impact on our local businesses. We are currently staying in close communication with our marketing partners, including Harrah’s Cherokee and the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, in addition to daily communications with the Office of the Principal Chief. We have completed a communications plan and are beginning to implement that plan. This will include tactical shifts and special initiatives in our marketing strategy, outreach to our business community, and evaluating other forms of assistance to our local economy.”
The National Park Service is advising travelers of detour routes to make the trip from Cherokee to Tennessee, which can take upwards of an hour and half additional drive time, without the benefit of the scenery and experience of traveling along the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway.
As the most visited National Park in the service, the landslide stands to do significant damage to the region’s economy. “The impact of the slide on Cherokee’s economy is nothing less than substantial,” said Lambert. “The Division of Commerce is working diligently on all fronts to stay ahead of the game and mitigate the effect as much as possible. We will be strategic in our approach. In the meantime, everyone should know that Cherokee is still open and we welcome all visitors to come and stay with us.”