Originally created 10/31/04

Storms' impact resonates through southern Appalachian



PISGAH NATIONAL FOREST, N.C. - A stream called Licklog Branch meanders delicately down from the Blue Ridge Parkway, gurgling under a small bridge that's carried sightseers for seven decades.

But the bridge isn't getting much traffic these days. It's blocked by a 10-foot-tall jumble of broken trees, sticks and brush washed down the mountainside by a trio of rainy tropical storms that turned gentle creeks into muddy torrents.

The scene on this U.S. Forest Service road is typical across the southern Appalachian backwoods, which are still cleaning up from the fury of Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. And while most major thoroughfares in the region are returning to normal just in time for the autumn colors, there's no quick fix for a broken bridge, washed-out road or battered campground in the backcountry.

In hard-hit North Carolina alone, officials say it could take months and up to $60 million to restore damage on state and federal parklands.

"We've got a ton of work to be done," said Terry Seyden, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in North Carolina.

Neighboring states largely escaped significant damage from the August and September storms, either because they dealt them a lesser blow or because topography kept the foul weather away.

"We were protected by the ridge," said David Owenby, spokesman for Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation. "We absorbed a lot of water, but it wasn't as much and it didn't stay near as long as on the other side of the mountains."

In Georgia, the storms even had a beneficial effect, raising the water level in the dangerously dry Okefenokee Swamp and allowing managers of the national wildlife refuge to reopen some previously dried-out canoe trails.

But in North Carolina, the damage estimate from U.S. Forest Service lands alone is $47.2 million.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park - the nation's most-visited national park - sustained $2.7 million in damage, $1.3 million of that to trails.

The most obvious damage - to the tune of $8 million to $10 million - is to the Park Service's Blue Ridge Parkway, the 469-mile scenic corridor from the Great Smokies to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

Major sections of the road were closed immediately after Frances and again as Ivan neared. Afterward, crews worked nearly around the clock to clear broken trees and other debris.

Only two sections totaling 19 miles remained closed this month, and on a recent weekend, leaf-peepers crowded the winding two-lane road.

"If you'd seen us a few weeks ago, you'd say 'Hmm, somebody's done a lot of work,'" parkway spokesman Phil Noblitt said. "Those guys busted their butts."

The two closed sections are where the road bed collapsed due to landslides. The largest, north of the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park, should be ready for traffic by spring. The other, near Linville Falls, may be opened by summer.

Federal agencies expect to get some help from a $14.5 billion disaster relief bill approved by Congress early in October.

North Carolina's state parks collected another $285,000 in damage. South Mountains State Park, about 25 miles east of Asheville and the state's largest park at 16,918 acres, is closed indefinitely due to flood-damaged roads, trails and bridges.

Across the backwoods, trails are gradually being cleared of blown debris, though more severe damage will have to wait, possibly until spring.

Trails "basically turn into ditches in a flood, and the tread you walk on will be scoured away by water, leaving deep gullies which are difficult and sometimes dangerous to navigate, especially on horses," explained Bob Miller, spokesman for the Great Smokies park.

The water also swept away foot bridges over streams, leaving hikers or other visitors with the option of turning back or making a potentially dangerous crossing.

But few trails are absolutely impassable, at least to determined hikers willing to scramble around fallen trees or pick past erosion.

"I think, long term, people are just going to have to expect you're going to come across trees that are across the trail and it's going to take you perhaps a little bit longer to get to your favorite backcountry site," the Forest Service's Seyden said. "It could well take us a year or two to get all the trails that are blocked cut out again."

It's the cumulative impact that may be most expensive to fix. Trails that aren't restored right away become more eroded, or the surrounding forest gets beaten down as hikers detour around blocked spots.

"It's like your roof - if you lose one shingle, you can fix it for a dollar," Miller said. "But if you don't, then the roof boards rot and it leaks.... The work of fixing it gets more and more substantial the longer it takes."

The Forest Service hopes to help stabilize remote washout sites by aerially reseeding the terrain this month. Regrading and rebuilding erosion control devices will have to wait.

"We have another probably six weeks of good working weather, but after mid-November, the higher elevations start getting frost and heaving, and it doesn't work so well," Miller said.

Some of the work can be handled by trained volunteers, such as crews from the Carolina Mountain Club, Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Appalachian Trail Club.

At the foot of Mount Mitchell, the Forest Service's Black Mountain campground and its trailheads stand empty except for determined visitors who walk two miles from a gate blocking the flood-pitted South Toe River Road.

A pile of shattered trees blocks the Forest Service-maintained Devils Den loop trail, but the steep, 5½-mile trail to the summit has been partially cleared by Carolina Mountain Club crews.

"We've been concentrating mainly on the area around Asheville, because that's where the most people are hiking now," said trail crew organizer Piet Bodenhorst. "We just can't get to some of the places, and it takes a long time to get chain saws and some equipment in these areas."

IF YOU GO

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK: Click on "Road and Trail Closures" at www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm for the latest information, or call (865) 436-1200.

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY: Updates on the home page at www.nps.gov/blri/index.htm or call (828) 298-0398 for the latest information on closures and weather.