Landslides, washouts take toll on Wyoming highways

2011-08-01T12:01:00Z 2011-09-28T15:25:08Z Landslides, washouts take toll on Wyoming highwaysThe Associated Press The Associated Press
August 01, 2011 12:01 pm  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- Flooding this spring and summer caused more than a dozen landslides and washouts that resulted in four traffic deaths and at least $19 million in damage to Wyoming's roads and highways, a state official said Monday.

"Obviously this has been a year just way beyond the norm," said Ken Shultz, assistant chief engineer with the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

The damage estimate is sure to grow because damage is still being assessed. Also, it doesn't include damage to county roads or the washout on Wyoming 130 in Carbon County, where four people died July 19 when their van plunged into a large hole created by a raging creek.

Shultz said there easily could have been more deaths because landslides occurred on several major roadways, including one interstate highway.

"It just boggles my mind that these happened in some of these areas and we didn't have more human casualties than we have had," he said.

Altogether, eight people have died in Wyoming this spring and summer in waters running high from heavy rain and melting record snowpack. Fifteen counties and the Wind River Indian Reservation have been declared disaster areas, and state and federal officials began meeting Monday with mostly local and tribal government officials about federal disaster aid requests.

Shultz said there were 10 major landslides and three washouts that affected traffic on state and federal roads and numerous smaller landslides.

"Most of the sites that we've seen that have been catastrophic - the bigger failures - are failures where we've never seen slides before," he said.

Interstate 90 in the Sheridan area was among the roads with landslide problems, but Shultz said the landslide in the Snake River Canyon on U.S. 26/89 caused the most traffic problems because it closed a major commuter route in the Jackson Hole area for more than a week. People in the Star Valley area had to drive into Idaho to reach Jackson, adding about an hour to a one-way trip.

"This is pretty much, in my close to 30 years, the biggest total number of slides that we've seen where we've seen roadway failures," Shultz said.

Besides Wyoming 130, U.S. 26 west of Riverton and the causeway across Big Horn Lake on U.S. 14A received erosion, he said.

Engineers believe heavy snow during the past two winters saturated the soil and was the primary cause of the problems with the roads and highways.

Interstate 80 survived the flooding along the North Platte River in good shape, Shultz said. At one point, engineers were concerned that the high water might actually move two bridges on the interstate near Sinclair off their abutments but that never happened, he said.

And where there were problems, state Transportation Department crews and private contractors did a good job of reopening roads, Shultz said.

"I think we reacted as quickly as you could expect in some of these situations and in fact maybe we got things open fairly quickly."

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