'We're making it work': Mudslide detour adds extensive travel time for Clinch teachers, principal

Jeff Bobo • Mar 5, 2019 at 10:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Clinch School already feels a bit cut off from the rest of the Hawkins County school system, thanks to being separated by a substantial obstacle called Clinch Mountain. 

However, now that the two main highways connecting it with the rest of the county are closed for the next several months due to mudslides, the rural K-12 school is beginning to feel more like Siberia.

Just ask Principal Denise McKee, who lives in Pine Flats and was already driving an hour and 15 minutes each way to work and back. Thanks to the Route 31 detour to Mooresburg, her travel time has been extended by 45 minutes, to two hours each way.

Four hours on the road every day

Clinch teachers who live in Rogersville, Kingsport or Morristown would normally take Route 70-N from Rogersville to Clinch Valley Road to get to school.

On. Feb. 21, after days of rain, a 200-foot section of the highway collapsed on the side of Clinch Mountain and isn’t expected to reopen until mid-August.

The next best alternative is taking Route 66-N, which is quite a bit narrower and winding.

However, that option was taken off the table on Feb. 24, when more heavy rain caused a section of the roadway to slide off Clinch Mountain near New Life Road. That section of highway isn’t expected to reopen until mid-October.

Now Clinch teachers who need to get to Rogersville have to take Clinch Valley Road west to Route 31, and Route 31 south to Mooresburg, where they connect with Highway 11-W.

Monday was the first school day since massive flooding hit Hawkins County on Feb. 21 that school started on a normal schedule, instead of a two-hour delay.

Usually McKee leaves her house for work around 5:45 a.m., but on Monday have she left around 4:50 a.m.

Because of an afterschool faculty meeting, she didn’t get home until around 7:15 p.m.

It makes for a long day.

How are you coping with the new detour?

“I did get lost last week on my first detour trip. I went on Copper Ridge Road and ended up somewhere called Sneedville Beach. I don’t know where that’s at, but it took me an extra 30 minutes because the GPS took me a different way.”

Can you live with four hours on the road every day until August?

“Everyone has been so nice, and has offered for me to stay, either in Rogersville or over here. So I’m making arrangements to do that because this detour is going to last until the end of the school year. Then I have to be back to school in July, and it will still be closed about a month. That’s a lot mileage, a lot of gas and a lot of hours.”

How is this affecting your teachers?

“We have one teacher who lives in Sneedville and one who lives in Kyles Ford. The rest have to take the Route 31 detour with me. Our teachers are spread out from Kingsport to Rogersville to Morristown, so the majority of teachers are now on the road each day an extra 10 to 40 minutes each way.”

What are their biggest concerns about the Route 31 detour?

“Traffic on Route 31 is heavier, it’s got all these switchbacks on it, and all the big trucks are using it. I will have to say this: Everyone is a little timid and nervous about traveling the new route because they think (another mudslide) is going to happen on Route 31 now. There are places they have cones where you can see some of the rocks have come down. I don’t know what we’ll do if something happens to Route 31. We’re making it work right now, and we do caravans at times just because everyone is nervous about the road.”

How is this affecting students?

“Most students live on the north side of Clinch Mountain, so the detour doesn’t affect their travel to school. But if their parents work in Rogersville, and the school day is shortened due to weather, it will take parents longer to get to school to pick up their children. I feel bad for the people who live over here and have to drive to work, or go to town to get groceries and things like that. It’s hard enough to go over the mountain when the roads are open.”

Are you prepared for this major disruption to your life?

“I’ve got some gracious friends and coworkers, so I’m in the process of making arrangements to see where I’m going to stay. I’m looking for the one that’s most convenient for everybody. I don’t want to be in someone’s way. Probably in Rogersville. I’ll come in on Monday, stay during the week and go back home on Friday. My husband works in Elizabethton. I think we’re going to have a date on Wednesday nights or something. I don’t know.”

The couple also have three dogs and one cat. There won’t be any split custody of the pets between Rogersville and Piney Flats, however.

The pets will be staying in Pine Flats, where McKee’s dad lives with them and helps take care of the animals.