Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 5, 2013

Falling rocks — big and small — are problematic across the region


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— I was on Mercer Street for the Princeton Christmas Parade when Editor Samantha Perry called me. She had just heard about a rockslide on Interstate 77.

My gut reaction was “not again!” Last March a major slide shut down both northbound lanes of I-77. Photographer Eric DiNovo and I had to go up John Nash Boulevard, find a place to park, and then hike most of the way to the scene. Traffic was backed up, but the weather was clear and the scene was extremely interesting. Boulders the size of cars and refrigerators had detached from the mountainside and rolled into the highway. Even I could tell that clearing the mess up was going to be a major operation.

That was a tiring day, but the conditions were good. This time the situation was different. Night had fallen and being outdoors along a highway at night isn’t my favorite thing to do, but you go to the scene of the story if you want to get it.

I left the parade — a pickup truck almost had me trapped in the parking lot — and started driving down I-77 south. I kept watching for bright work lights and the blue lights of deputies and state troopers. Through the inky blackness I drove, flicking my brights on and off as warranted, still watching for the scene of the slide. It was supposed to be at the three-mile marker.

Well, I passed the three-mile marker and saw nothing. I turned around at the Bluefield exit and drove north, thinking I would find the scene. I passed the site again and still didn’t see everything; I was either becoming very inattentive, or something was wrong. I noticed the slow lane had been closed near the right place, but I didn’t see anybody, and I didn’t think anything of the closure since a lot of maintenance work has been underway on 77.  I guess I still had the big slide of last March on my mind.

I returned to the office and called Tom Camden, the supervisor for District 10 of the state Department of Highways. He told me some rocks had rolled off the cliff and landed near the slow lane, so that lane was closed as a precaution. We had not had an actually rockslide, but the scene was close to the place where the cliff had collapsed last March.

Erosion is constantly breaking up the mountains. When you’re driving along any of the roadways, it is not uncommon to see small rocks and boulders along the roadways. Most of these are minor nuisances, but larger materials fall and block the roads sometimes.

The latest scene of concern is being monitored in case more boulders start coming down. When winter arrives, repeated freezing and thawing breaks up stone. Water seeps into cracks, and when it freezes, the forming ice expands and breaks up the stone. It’s amazing how much force ice can generate. When this cycle keeps happening, even the largest stones are forced apart. It’s almost as if somebody like Samson has been working to split boulders in half.

Water also works to bury roadways. When ground becomes saturated and turns into mud, gravity pulls it down. I’ve seen this happen several times when heavy rain drenches the region. Those are usually cleaned up in a few hours unless some sizable boulders or trees came down with the mud. I saw a scene like that once and it looked like Godzilla had come tramping down the highway. The big guy’s passage has a way of churning up the landscape.

Water action also causes what Camden described as “slips.” When the ground beneath a highway is undermined, it literally slips and breaks away from the mountainside. I’ve seen the results of slips, and the cracks in pavement and ground remind me of earthquake movies. I’m always amazed to see how much can happen so quickly.

My Dad was a design engineer for the department of highways, and I know dealing with slides from above and slips from below was something he constantly had to consider. Passages were blasted through mountains to create our interstate highway system. It’s an amazing feat of engineering ranking up there with China’s Great Wall and the Trans Siberian Railroad, but it created many new cliffs that nature and gravity work to pull down. If it wasn’t for road workers and the constant maintenance they perform, many of our highways and secondary roads would be buried by now.

Barriers have been put up along I-77 northbound so more boulders won’t roll into the lanes, but the situation is being monitored. If anyone starts hearing loud cracks or sees a big increase in rocks falling down the hillside, it could be cause for alarm. When the cliff collapsed last March, workers noticed the situation in time and stopped traffic. One person caught the slide on a cell phone video, and it was fast and very impressive. Some day another slide will happen. If it isn’t at I-77, it will happen somewhere else. All we can do is stay alert and hope everyone will remain safe.

Greg Jordan is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.