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Oakmont businessman's fears swell with Plum Creek

| Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, 10:10 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Ted Sokol, owner of Oakmont Auto Body and Motorcycle, points to Plum Creek behind a makeshift dike protecting his property from flooding along Plum Street in Oakmont on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
A makeshift dike was finished, with help from Folino Trucking, above Plum Creek protecting Ted Sokol's business, Oakmont Auto Body and Motorcycle, from flooding along Plum Street in Oakmont on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.

The water from Plum Creek has subsided, but the scars remain for Ted Sokol.

“This is what Ivan did to me,” Sokol said from inside his Oakmont auto body shop, as he pulled down the neck of his shirt, exposing a scar from the quadruple bypass surgery he needed after his third heart-attack. “When the creek flooded from Ivan in 2005, my whole shop was flooded, I lost my life savings, my health.

“I lost everything.”

Sokol's Oakmont Auto Body sits on Plum Street a mere 100 feet away from Plum Creek. As rain pounded the area on Wednesday, a couple of feet of water accumulated in the yard adjacent to the shop, but the shop was spared.

Sokol said he, with the help of other area businesses, built a dam behind his property to keep the water at bay.

“Without that wall, this whole street would have been flooded again,” he said. “It held enough that the water stopped right at my building.”

According to the National Weather Service, the area received about an inch of rain in about an hour Wednesday afternoon.

Plum Creek looked as if it were ready to spill over again Thursday afternoon, as hard rains fell again.

Sokol's no stranger to flooding. He said his shop flooded in 1987, 2005 and 2007.

“After the flood in 1987, the borough manager had the creek dredged, and it held until Ivan in '05,” he said, standing on the bridge that takes Plum Street over the creek. “I've been trying to get them to come down here and dredge it again, but they won't.

“They can spend millions replacing the brick on (Allegheny River Boulevard), but they can't spend a tenth of that here.”

Fears persist

Nancy DeTar gets worried every time a storm rolls through the neighborhood.

“After Ivan, I had 5 feet of water throughout my house,” DeTar said, sitting in her rebuilt living room across the street from Sokol's business. “Every time it rains, I'm scared to death.

“I can't take another flood. I barely made it through the first one.”

The 75-year-old DeTar said she hopes someone will help the neighborhood.

“It's a really sad situation,” she said. “I wish someone would take responsibility (for the creek).

“They just don't care.”

Sokol said he doesn't see any relief on the way.

“All we get is lip service,” he added. “No one will help.”

Fixing the problem

How to get help to the people on Plum Street is more complicated than residents had hoped.

Borough Manager Lisa Cooper Jensen said the borough would address what steps it can take to fix the creek at council's next meeting, Oct. 14.

“We've been trying to address those concerns since 2004, if not longer,” she said. “That's definitely a problem for us.”

The borough originally thought the creek was under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers.

But the Corps denied that Thursday, opening the door for the borough to act.

“We did a project there in 1981,” Dan Jones, a spokesman for the Corps. It was a project in which rocks were placed along the creek banks to prevent erosion.

“There aren't any studies in the works,” he added. He said the borough could apply, but would have to pay for a portion of the study.

Jones said the borough can fix any problem on the creek, as long as it applies for a permit from the Corps — which anyone who wants to alter a waterway in the United States must do.

While the borough can fix the problem, dredging doesn't seem to be an option, according to John Poister, a spokesman for DEP's Southwest region.

“We have a long history with Plum Creek,” he said. “We've had a lot of cases where our waterways and wetlands have spilled over into people's properties.

“DEP does not do dredging; we don't believe that is a solution,”

Poister said the creek's problems stem from storm runoff — something the borough will have to address with engineers.

“They have to develop a safe water plan,” he added. “There are a lot of new developments on the creek that have added to the problems of flooding.

According to Poister, the DEP would have to issue its own permits for the borough to work on the creek.

“The first thing would be to come up with a stormwater management plan,” he said. “Any work they'd need to do on the stream, they'd need to get permits.”

Regardless of the red tape, Jensen said she's glad to know the borough can address the problem.

“Now that we know, maybe this is something we can budget for 2014.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer.

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