According to Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) engineer Will Stowe, clearing the roadway and stabilizing the slope above the rockslide on Route 250 west will not be accomplished quickly. Stowe gave a worst-case scenario of mid-July for completion, at a cost of more than $1 million.
Stowe, who’s responsible for overseeing the safe opening of the road, leads a team in charge of stabilizing the slope that includes a site manager, two inspectors, and two on-call contractors, one for excavation and one a geotechnical contractor.
It’s a difficult process, Stowe said, requiring four different access roads, one every 20 feet along the 80-foot drop. The roads, built with excavated debris, allow workers to begin at the top to stabilize the hillside. At the top, they’ll drill 30-foot-long threaded steel rods, called “soil nails,” at an angle into the slope. Workers will insert hundreds of these rods at four different levels, using shorter rods as they descend the slope. They’ll fill them with grout at each level, waiting three days for the grout to harden. Finally, the slope will be covered with netting and wire mesh fencing.
Rush Hour in Afton
The road closure has been difficult for commuters and especially difficult for the residents of Afton who live along the Route 6 detour. The road closure began May 3 on the busy stretch of Route 250, about 500 feet west of Rt. 151, diverting all traffic between the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia to I-64.
Route 6, the alternate route that connects Route 151 to Rt. 250 again above the closed-off area, is closed to trucks, but that has not stopped truckers determined to avoid the Interstate. The formerly quiet village of Afton became a busy thoroughfare overnight, and residents reported a steady stream of loud vehicles, fast-moving cars and oversized trucks on the winding, two-lane stretch. This secondary road, known locally as Afton Mountain Road, starts at Route 250 with a classic hairpin turn and continues downhill as it curves past the post office and many homes as it descends more than 1,800 feet.
Pete Armetta, who lives in Blue Ridge Terrace on Route 250, said he was escorted home by the State Police when the roadblock first kept him from returning to his apartment. He looks down on Route 6 from his deck. “We have known for a while of precariously large tractor-trailers getting stuck here,” he said. He acknowledges the need for road repairs on the slope below, despite the extra trouble it causes him personally. “I can live with the inconvenience, though it is extra noisy.”
Victoria Dunham, who lives on the end of Afton Mountain Road’s first turn going east, sees more truckers than ever stepping on the gas to climb the steep slope at the post office, heading straight for her window. “The road is a perfect storm of blind corners after short straights and narrow curves,” she said.
Lou Hatter, VDOT communications manager, said he’s asked the Virginia Trucking Association to inform truckers that the Route 6 detour is not for tractor-trailers. “Route 6 is a permanent restricted route between Rt. 250 and Route 151,” he said. Virginia State Police have been issuing tickets to truckers who have gotten stuck on route, but residents say the trucks continue to attempt this perilous slope rather than detour to I-64.
The current closure may end up being the longest, but it is not the first at Rockfish Gap. There’s a history of past landslides, including many caused by the catastrophic floods of Hurricane Camille in 1969. There have also been a couple since then.
In 1990, a rockslide at I-64 on Afton Mountain caused traffic to be re-routed while road crews removed rubble and huge boulders. A fence to mitigate rockfall can be seen along the roadway today. In 2013, VDOT investigated reports of possible landslides and rockfalls in the Rockfish Valley and ultimately had contractors push the rubble down the slope, with intermittent lane closures of I-64 for several weeks.
The same features that make our area beautiful also make it prone to flooding. Rainstorms in the Blue Ridge Mountains often create conditions capable of causing landslides, and experts hope to find ways to prevent them in the future.
In 2019, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) gave a grant to Anne Carter Witt, who specializes in geological hazards, to study the Albemarle and Nelson County area for ways to prevent disasters. Witt came to the site of the Route 250 rockslide following the event to help craft a plan for avoiding future problems there. She’ll incorporate what she learns in her study.
Traditionally, geologists have used aerial photography to pinpoint past landslides, but there’s a new tool called Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) that experts hope will identify evidence of previous landslide activity. Finding potential hazards before slides occur will allow them to inform citizens and emergency workers in those areas. Developing maps would enable early warning and evacuation plans for future heavy rainstorms, particularly those that dump more than 5 inches of rain in 24 hours.
The U.S. Geological Survey has some advice for those who live in landslide-prone areas. Experts recommend that you become familiar with the land around you. Slopes where debris flows have occurred in the past are likely to experience them in the future. You can learn whether debris flows have occurred in your area from local officials, geological surveys, or departments of natural resources.
Meanwhile, workers are putting in long hours to stabilize the current landslide, VDOT’s Stowe said: “I do understand this is a major inconvenience, but appreciate the time and effort my team has put in doing the geotechnical work on weekends.”