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Smokies shift focus from rescue to reopening

Workers clear storm damage from Great Smoky Mountains

Workers clear storm damage from Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Saturday, near Townsend, Tenn., as rangers shifted their focus Saturday from rescue efforts to reopening the popular area to the public. (July 7, 2012) Credit: AP

TOWNSEND, Tenn. - Rangers shifted their focus Saturday from rescue efforts to reopening a popular section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after violent storms led to two deaths and several injuries.

Chief Ranger Clayton Jordan said a concentrated effort to clear hundreds of fallen trees could allow public access to the park to resume by Saturday afternoon in the most optimistic scenario.

The storms hit Thursday evening at the west end of the 500,000-acre reserve on the Tennessee-North Carolina line. A swimmer and a motorcyclist were killed, and several others were injured.

Much of the damage was in the popular Cades Cove area of the park and in communities just outside the park boundaries.

A steady stream of visitors was turned back from the park entrance on Friday as workers cleared an emergency path.

A crew of 44 was working Saturday to clear the roadway, shoulders and overhangs in order to make the passage safe for visitors.

Jordan said that section of the park could be open by Saturday afternoon, but that work is complicated by the need to remove thick root balls of downed trees.

"Sometimes they come up in 20 minutes, other times we need special equipment, and that can cause a backlog of several hours," he said.

Most of the campers who weathered the storm at Cades Cove decided to leave Friday. Those who remained were originally told they would have to stay until the cleanup work was completed along the road. But delays may cause rangers to offer another convoy out of the area before the park reopens.

Rescue efforts on Thursday night were hampered by power being knocked out to a key radio repeater in the area, which led to spotty transmission from campers seeking assistance. Jordan described the communications problems as "extremely frustrating" as emergency officials tried to plot their response.

At one point, rescuers were forced to use a camper's OnStar satellite communications service to communicate with other first responders, and it took hours for the injured to reach ambulances.

An estimated 400 to 500 campers and other visitors left the park on Friday, while about 20 campsites — about 50 to 60 people — remained occupied on Saturday, Jordan said. About 20,000 people visit the affected area of the park on a typical weekend day in the summer.

The same storm system killed a child and her grandmother in Chattanooga when high winds overturned a 30-foot double-decker pontoon boat on Chickamauga Lake.

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