The locked gate: Road closure decisions complex in the Smokies

Lisa Hendy is an early riser, and when it comes to dealing with snow days in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that’s a good thing.

As chief ranger, Hendy’s responsibilities are many — but one of them is deciding when, if and for how long to close the roads when the weather gets bad. “Really what it boils down to is a combination of the forecast and observations on the ground,” she said.

She rises each morning at 4 a.m., and when severe weather’s in the forecast, the early wakeup allows her to get a jump on the day’s planning. The park bases its closure decisions on forecasts from the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tennessee, as well as on-the-ground observations from employees. By 5:30 a.m., she talks with Facility Management Division Chief Alan Sumeriski and Deputy Superintendent Clay Jordan to discuss the situation.

In those early morning hours, rangers who live in the park, road crew staff and anyone else who has a firsthand look will text Sumeriski to let him know what they see. The more observations, the better — with its dramatic variation in topography and elevation, conditions can vary wildly within the park’s 816 square miles.

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