By Jody Steinberg

Katie Oehler recalls the exact date she awoke to banging sounds in the basement of her Drew Valley home: June 17, 2003.

She opened the door and found herself staring at a basement pooling with water, which would reach 5.5 feet by daylight. The noise was her floating possessions banging against walls.

The water had burst through a solid wood door after Poplar Creek crested during a “25-year” storm. The deluge flooded 175 homes in Drew Valley and nearby Jackson Square flooded, and a section of Dresden Drive caved in. More bad news followed for Oehler, husband Glenn Phillips and neighbors. “We didn’t have flood insurance because we weren’t in a flood plain,” Oehler said. “We had to incur all the losses. For us, that was $35,000; some lost as much as $60,000.”

That was a bitter pill to swallow because they knew the problems resulted from overdevelopment upstream, insufficient environmental impact requirements for the developers and undersized culverts (the pipes installed under streets to allow creeks to cross roads without backing up). Small culverts installed in 2002 contributed to nine home floods in 2002 and 2003.

“The runoff came from new development off Dresden. When they replace woods with impervious rooftops and parking lots, that increases the water flow. At the time, the county didn’t have adequate provisions for water retention. The county had turned our homes into detention ponds, and our basement doesn’t make a very good detention pond,” said Oehler, who launched a campaign to push DeKalb County to solve the flooding problems.

DeKalb tapped funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency to buy out 15 flood-prone homes in 2003.

Gale Walldorff, who represented Drew Valley as a county commissioner at the time, remembers her constituents’ distress as their homes flooded repeatedly, gaining national attention in 2004 after Hurricane Ivan. The county hired consulting firm Dewberry to devise a plan to manage water flow in the 290-acre Drew Valley-Brookhaven watershed area.

The plan was threefold:

• Buy and raze 15 more flood-prone homes and convert the land to green space.

• Upsize several culverts to better manage heavy flows of water and debris.

• Build a regional detention pond to hold the water and control release during downpours.

FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grants were tapped to pay for up to 75 percent of the improvements and buyouts.

A few years, several lengthy proposals and even more buyouts later, DeKalb County began work on the 3.3-acre detention pond bordered by Drew Valley Road and Brookhaven Fields.

The nearly complete Drew Valley Stormwater Management Facility will eliminate flooding across the 290-acre area. A large concrete control, similar to a culvert, will restrict the outflow of water. Excess water will back up into the pond, which will fill when it rains.

“It will hold back the creek and release water gradually so there won’t be any flooding,” said David Pelton, the county Transportation Department engineer who is responsible for bidding and managing the $2.16 million construction contract.

Community meetings prompted a number of aesthetic changes, including the cultured-stone exterior; the high, wrought-iron fencing; the nature trail surrounding the culvert; and the wetlands landscaping.

As the project approaches its end, contractors are planting wetlands flora designed to prevent erosion and to encourage wildlife, Pelton said. After months of dividing the neighborhood with construction, contractors repaved and reopened Drew Valley Road in late March. Area residents are pleased with the progress, even discussing ideas to enhance the area.

“They have done a wonderful job on this detention pond,” said Oehler, who chairs the Drew Valley zoning and land use committee as well as the DeKalb County Community Council. “The pond is beautiful. It’s got landscaping and ducks and geese already. We are so thankful and happy that when it rains real hard we don’t have to worry about our homes flooding anymore.”