November 27, 1996 in Nation/World

Slide Closes U.S. 95 Near Whitebird Crews Can’t Begin Work Until Sliding Stabilizes

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Tons of rock and soil tumbled down across U.S. Highway 95 on Tuesday, choking off Idaho’s main north-south route 13 miles south of Whitebird and stranding travelers heading home for Thanksgiving.

Late Tuesday, state officials still weren’t sure when the highway will be reopened. For now, they’re recommending people take alternate routes through Washington, Oregon or Montana.

“We really don’t have a schedule for opening because we don’t have a schedule for starting,” said Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Bill Dermody. “It’s really not safe for us to go in there right now.”

Once the slide stabilizes, Dermody said, engineers are confident they can reopen one lane of road in eight hours. The slide is estimated to contain 10,000 cubic yards of rock and soil - enough to fill 1,000 dump trucks.

“You’ve got a whole lot of loose rock hanging there,” said Dermody. “Once it falls, then we’re in business.”

No one was injured in the slide, which happened around 5:30 a.m. after several days of falling rocks on the steep hillside above the roadway.

At Lucile, workers Tuesday erected a barricade across the road a few hundred yards from the slide.

The slide was still shifting Tuesday night, making a clattering, tinkling sound like a rain of slate.

A quarter-mile away, stranded travelers camped beside the road in pickup campers and trailers.

“I’ve got my camper, trailer, groceries and propane,” said Ben Parker, a Caldwell drywall contractor returning from a hunting trip. “I’m going to wait - as long as it’s open by Monday.”

Many travelers were annoyed that the road closure wasn’t better marked and publicized. They said they didn’t pay attention to the temporary road-closure signs they passed, figuring they were leftovers from snow closures.

“The main north-south route, and that’s the kind of warning you get?” fumed George Law, a Meridian salesman also returning from a hunting trip. He turned around to make the long trip back to Washington, then south.

So did a carload of students from the University of Montana, headed south for Thanksgiving at home. They’d driven down from Missoula only to find the highway barricaded.

Nearby, Clifford and Darlene Miller sat in their spacious trailer. With a VCR, television, kitchen, sofa and their dog, the Orofino couple said they’re prepared to wait days, if necessary.

The couple was on their way to Arizona Monday when they decided the roads were getting a bit slick. They stopped in Grangeville overnight.

“We were waiting ‘til the roads thawed this morning. Mistake,” said Darlene Miller.

The slide wasn’t caused by water and mud, according to Mike Ponozzo, at the Transportation Department’s Lewiston office. Workers say the soil between the rocks is very dry and powdery, like talc.

“It’s just slipping,” Ponozzo said of the slide. “It’s just that Mother Nature finally decided it was hanging too steep.”

Small rocks began littering the roadway at Lucile on Nov. 2, he said. Then, on Sunday afternoon, a slide of about 2,000 cubic yards filled the ditch and covered part of the roadway. A crew pushed it out of the way.

On Monday, the crew noticed that a large crack had formed near the top of the bluff overlooking the roadway, he said. A state geologist was going to examine the site Tuesday, but before the geologist could get there, the slide happened.

Ponozzo said work crews will attack the slide from both ends, but said more rock may come down as the base of the slide is hauled away.

“We’ll work daylight, dark, whatever it takes,” he said.

The number to call for the Idaho road report is (208) 799-5055.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map of area

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