By Rich Heiland
Free Press Publications, LLC
For Walker County News Today
Last in a Series
WHEN RUSTY DENNER, Elkins Lake general manager, looks back at the impact Hurricane Harvey had on the residential golf course development in the southwest corner of Huntsville, he feels pretty good about the organization’s pre-planning.
“Our hurricane plan worked. We just didn’t plan on 30 inches of rain,” he said.
In fact, it worked so well that Denner wasn’t even missed. He was stuck in his house in Montgomery County. Since Harvey hit on a weekend, he wasn’t in his office.
But like most people, he was watching Harvey’s progression, as was his staff on the ground.
“I was watching everything and I just decided it wasn’t worth it to try to get out,” he told Walker County News Today.
“When I saw what was going on from home, knowing we were closed, I was following the Huntsville police Facebook listening to radios, watching road closures. I had a good feeling when I got out of my house and could not get onto 105, it wasn’t any better in Elkins,” he said.
Since he had internet and phone service, he was looped with his team on the ground, primarily Jerry Edgin, facilities and maintenance manager.
“Jerry was my go-to man and we were in constant communication,” Denner said.
He also was looping in with Head Golf Pro Ray Sarno and Jerry Huntsman, golf course superintendent.
During the storm the back part of Elkins was cut off, which had not happened before. River Oaks Drive at the tennis courts also floods and with Harvey’s 30-plus inches it was a massive lake of fast-moving rapids. There is a small culvert under River Oaks, but it doesn’t take a huge rain to overwhelm it, and Harvey was used.
So much water ran into Azalea Lake, the middle lake, that water was flowing not just through the Azalea spillway into Camelia, it was topping part of the land dam.
Normally people in the back part of Elkins would use either River Oaks to go to the Veterans Memorial Boulevard entrance/exit or Greenbriar Drive to go to the I-45 Access Road entrance/exit.
At one point during the peak of the deluge water was coming down Cherry Hills from an elevated part of the development, crossing Greenbriar and making its way to the spillway. A low-rise vehicle could not cross it.
Huntsville Police Chief Kevin Lunsford, an Elkins resident, said he could not recall seeing that before, but he said “fortunately that did not last that long.”
At the far end of West Greenbriar Drive there is a dip before the street dead-ends into a city sewer station. Water was coming off a hill and cutting that area off.
Both those problem areas could be fixed if a city funding application for Harvey money, using state and federal funds, are approved. City Manager Aron Kulhavy said each of those remediation projects would cost around a million dollars. He said engineers already have worked out a design for River Oaks but he said just how West Greenbriar would be dealt with remains to be seen.
FOR DENNER, THOSE projects would be welcomed. He said he has been talking with the city about solutions.
But, there are other areas that are impacted by heavy rains. The intersection at River Oaks and Brook Hollow, at the recreation fields, sometimes is closed during heavy rains. But, that usually recedes quickly and does not require any engineering fix.
There also are places on the golf courses that are impacted by storms, and Harvey was no exception. The courses did not suffer serious damage from falling trees during Harvey, but sand traps were heavily damaged.
“Our traps were washed out,” Denner said.
Several fairways also are susceptible to standing water where there are drainage swales or low spots. Again, it doesn’t take much rain to saturate those spots and Harvey’s visited dumped more water than any previous rain event.
“I think we were closed about five days,” Denner said. When courses reopen following saturation, generally players are required to keep golf carts on paths and walk to their balls. Harvey was no exception. Even after the courses reopened, carts were limited and sand traps were unplayable.
“When the water was gone and we could get out, mostly what we found were places where we had to do silt removal, some clean-up,” he said.
One area was behind the tennis court restrooms running down toward the spillway run-off.
“We were down there looking at something totally unrelated to Harvey and noticed what looked like an eight-to-10 inch fault line along a ledge. We did tree removal to try to take weight off, but it wasn’t enough. So, we had to get into a project to fix that,” he said.
He also said water had gone over the emergency spillway, “something people who have been here a long time can only remember happening twice before.”
Kulhavy said from his perspective a fix for that may involve looking at the lake levels. He said they are higher now than what they were designed for. He said they should be about two-to-feet lower, which would move the water line about a 100-feeet from homes. That most likely would not sit well with waterfront homeowners. Those homes command the highest prices in the development because of waterfront access.
Also, the lakes over the years have filled up with silt and there have been discussions within the Elkins organization about costs and practicality of dredging.
A part of the problem with drainage in Elkins is the land itself. Elkins Lake was carved out of the woods that made up the country retreat of famous Judge James A. Elkins, Sr. It was his weekend getaway where all the key players in Texas, and some from around the country, would come to play cards, drink whiskey and plan politics. It was a timbered, hilly place.
While the hills remain a lot of the trees that hold water have given way to homes. The development, created in the 1970s, has grown rapidly in recent years and the growth most likely has added to run-off problems that always have been present to one degree or another.
Still, Harvey was a unique event. Overall, Denner thinks the development handled the massive slow-moving storm well. Residents lacked power for several days, there were some mobility challenges during the height of the storm, a few houses did get some water, at least in garages. But, no homes were lost, there were no reported injuries.
And, if there is a next time, maybe the city will have gotten funding for, and completed, projects that will prevent the worst of the flooding.
Rich Heiland, former publisher of the Huntsville Item and owner of Free Press publications, LLC, a reporting/writing firm working with media, has been a reporter, editor and publisher at several daily papers. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or 936-293-0293.