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Rockfalls in Martin, Lawrence, Pike counties

HIGHWAY DISTRICT 12 – February1, 2011 – With winds up to 70 miles per hour forecast for tonight and tomorrow throughout the Big Sandy Valley, state highway officials have changed their focus, at least temporarily, from snowfighting to rockbusting.

Rocks fell around noon today on the Inez side of Buck Creek Hill along KY 40 in Martin County. By 2 p.m. maintenance crews had flipped the biggest rock over and off the roadway onto the shoulder. “We’ll have to come back later and break it up to remove it,” said Superintendent Jerry Todd, “but it’s off the road and both lanes of traffic are back to normal.” Traffic was down to one lane for about two hours while Highway District 12’s “yellow jackets” worked with a loader and backhoe to flip the big rock off the road.

In Lawrence County work is still under way to remove a huge boulder that fell Monday night. Superintendent Tommy Queen said one lane of traffic on US 23 southbound re-opened about 8 o’clock last night, after crews used heavy equipment to push the massive rock off the roadway. On Tuesday afternoon maintenance specialists were still working to break up the rock into pieces small enough for an endloader to pick up and dump into a truck to be hauled away.
Pikeville’s Bypass Road remained closed on Tuesday following a substantial rockfall just after 7 o’clock Monday morning. Rock, trees, and debris were removed on Monday, but engineers decided to be cautious about re-opening the road. “They want to give the material on the hillside time to settle,” said Sara George, Highway District 12’s Information Officer. “We have to replace one of the four poles that anchor the traffic signals at the end of Don Combs Bridge. A new pole should be delivered Tuesday afternoon and work will begin to reinstall the signal heads and cable around 7 a.m. Wednesday. Weather permitting that work should take a day or so. We are looking at opening this stretch of Bypass Road sometime Thursday.”

George said that high winds predicted for Wednesday and Thursday could pose a problem. “We don’t want to jeopardize our workers’ safety any more than we would the traveling public. If the winds are so intense that the cables can’t be controlled, it may take a little longer. But that’s the worst case scenario, and we’re optimistic that we’ll have things in operation again sometime on Thursday.”

Motorists are cautioned to be alert when driving in rockfall-prone areas. George said the unusual amount of precipitation since about mid-November presents an increased likelihood that mudslides and rockfalls will occur as the ground warms and the moisture that has built up in cracks and crevices along hillsides and rock cuts continues to condense and expand. “Our maintenance people have a saying: the worse the winter, the more dangerous the spring. This is exactly what they are talking about – rockfalls and mudslides. Spring rain and winds increase the probability that things will come tumbling down onto the roadways.”

George admits that engineers and maintenance specialists cannot control Mother Nature, but she pointed out that response time to be at the scene and take control of the aftermath has been exemplary so far. “We owe a debt of thanks, as always, to our fire departments and law enforcement personnel who notify us immediately when they see a situation we need to tend to. It is teamwork and cooperation that enables us to respond effectively.”

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