By Jody Steinberg
Drew Valley residents gathered in front of the Drew Valley Drainage Facility and cheered.
Less than two months after its official dedication, the large, man-made pond was filled from side to side, holding back the excessive rain that would have flooded their homes. Drew Valley residents had dodged a bullet – or so they thought.
While the detention pond contained the storm that in years past would have flooded homes along the path of Poplar Creek, neighbors living along the North Fork Peachtree Creek were not so lucky.
Steve Walker has lived on Drew Valley Road alongside North Fork Peachtree Creek for 26 years, and seen his share of water in the wide floodplain just below the small ridge where his home sits. He and fiancée Lee Ard lost everything but the structure when water reached five feet inside their home during 2003
Just upstream from their home, Poplar Creek flows into Peachtree Creek, which flows past their home and passes under Drew Valley Road through three large culverts. Across the road are “flood lots” – former home sites that were so prone to flooding that the homes were purchased and leveled through a FEMA grant. Walker and Ard were not offered the buyout. County officials and FEMA representatives said that when the storm water project is finished, they would not flood again. They rebuilt and used a low-interest SBA loan to replace their personal belongings, which were not insured.
“Flood insurance isn’t enough to make you whole,” said Walker, who has become a reluctant expert on flooding. “They paid to replace the bottom cabinets in the kitchen, but not the top because they weren’t damaged. Who cares that they were 40 years old and would never match new cabinets?” Walker did a lot of the rebuilding himself to stretch the insurance settlement.
Construction began recently beside Walker and Ard’s home to replace the 42-inch culverts with two eight-foot ones. Ironically, massive concrete blocks and large corrugated pipe were put in the creek bed to divert the water during construction. The force of the first storm surge knocked over the blocks — which weigh more than a ton each – obstructing the flow of water. The torrent also took down two chain link fences and filled a wide swath of floodplain by Walker and Ard’s house. Thursday morning, DeKalb County moved the blocks to the creek bank and agreed to replace their fences.
Ard was thankful the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 21 that the water receded before it reached the foundation of their home. But she wasn’t too optimistic. “The creek hasn’t crested yet,” she said, looking warily across the floodplain to the creek, which was still calm at 1:00 p.m. Ard was right to be cautious. A few minutes later, rain began to fall again, and continued for hours. Around 4 p.m., the water began rising rapidly and within 20 minutes the garage was swamped and the house took on about two feet of water. As the rain poured down, Walker, Ard and other neighbors stood at the Drew Valley construction sight, watching the creek spread out like a lake as far as they could see.
One of those neighbors, Beth Westbrook, lives just five lots upstream (the other four lots were bought out by FEMA because of their flood potential). She left work early Monday and, with help from neighbors and family, she and her husband Clay were able to move their possessions out of the basement before about a foot of water rushed in. It receded just an hour later, but the damage will take months to repair.
“Compared to what happened to others in this city, it barely got us,” says Westbrook, who had removed the carpeting and drywall and hosed out her basement by midnight. “It wasn’t as bad as 2003,” she added, because the detention pond helped control some of the water.
“The whole neighborhood would have been under water if we didn’t have the pond.” said Katie Oehler, head of zoning and land use for the Drew Valley Civic Association, whose home flooded in 2003 and multiple times since.
“A lot of it was just yard-flooding – it was not from the creek. Some of it was from runoff just because it had nowhere to go. This pond has saved our lives. It’s working like a champ. Water is coming through, but it’s flowing like it’s supposed to. Without it, I know we would have flooded about four times since [the heavy rains began] and some of us would have been completely under water.”
Oehler was referring to the controlled way the facility retains water and reduces the downstream discharge into Poplar Creek by about 70 percent, preventing devastating storm surges, according to DeKalb County Roads and Drainage. The facility was designed to retain water for a 10-year storm event, but it handled the recent excessive storms better than could be expected. Early Monday afternoon, after a weekend of rain and Sunday night’s devastating deluge, the pond was merely a puddle in the 1.6-acre green basin that serves at wetlands when water levels recede. Barely a puddle on Monday afternoon, but before the day ended, it filled from side to side.
The detention pond and culverts are part of a long-term watershed management project to prevent a repeat of the devastating floods the community suffered in 2003 and 2004. Funded primarily by a FEMA pre-disaster management fund, the overall project included buying about 15 properties and converting them to green space.
“I think once the county replaces the culverts down the stream we will be fine,” says Westbrook, with an outlook uncommon to recently-flooded homeowners. “I just don’t know why it’s taken them six years.”
It has taken a while, but the major component of the plan – a detention pond to control the largest flow of water into the neighborhood – passed a major test.
“The thing that shocks me is that the whole city is under water and by and large, Drew Valley didn’t flood. It could be exponentially worse,” said Oehler.