An 11-mile stretch of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway reopened last month, after being closed for eight months because of damage from last fall's storms.
The stretch that begins just south of the road's intersection with state Highway 80 closed last September after heavy rains from the remnants of hurricanes Frances and Ivan caused sections of the roadbed to slide away.
An eight-mile stretch of the parkway farther north, just south of Linville Falls, remains closed, and officials do not expect it to reopen until next spring.
Still, tourism officials from Yancey and Mitchell counties were pleased to have the Mount Mitchell stretch open to traffic again, just in time for the busy summer travel season. A lengthy detour that was steep and windy resulted in a severe downturn in visitor traffic through tourism-dependent places such as Spruce Pine and Little Switzerland.
Patti Jensen of the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce noted that some Mitchell County businesses saw a 70 percent decline in business last October, at the height of leaf-watching season along the parkway.
Having the road open again will "be the difference between keeping businesses open and seeing them close," Jensen said. "When all this happened in September, we were basically cut off from north and south on the parkway."
Two quarter-mile stretches of the reopened section are reduced to a single lane, with traffic controlled by signals at either end. Parkway officials hope to have those stretches back to two-way traffic by Independence Day.
"For a brief moment in time [last fall], we were like, 'How are we going to overcome this?' " said Daniel Brown, the parkway superintendent.
A special congressional appropriation allowed the Federal Highway Administration to budget $2.5 million to repair the Mount Mitchell section, Brown said. Overall, he estimated that post-storm repairs to the parkway will cost $12 million, including roadwork, rebuilding the flooded visitor center at Linville Falls and removing fallen trees.
Engineers are still trying to determine the best way to rebuild the damaged section of parkway below Linville Falls.