Three years later, finally, the bulldozers have begun chewing away at the wreckage left behind at Offutt Air Force Base by the catastrophic floods of March 2019.
Already 2,600 tons of rubble has been cleared from the former site of the 55th Security Forces Squadron and several other ruined buildings southwest of Offutt’s main runway, said Maj. Eric Armstrong, acting director of the 55th Wing’s Next Generation Project Management Office. About 1,800 tons of steel, aluminum, copper and concrete has been recycled.
In the coming months and years, the rest of the 137 destroyed buildings, the workplace of 3,200 military and civilian workers, will be knocked down and rebuilt in eight new functional campuses.
“I get the lucky job of building back up,” said Col. Kristen Thompson, the 55th Wing commander.
Thompson, Armstrong and other military leaders briefed the news media Monday following a short tour of the flood-damaged south end of the base, including some of the earliest efforts at rebuilding.
If all goes according to plan, the post-flood reconstruction will be finished by 2027.
Armstrong still remembers looking out his office window the morning of Saturday, March 16, 2019, as the floodwaters crept up toward the south end of Offutt’s 2-mile long runway.
Over the previous few days, a winter “bomb cyclone” storm had dumped heavy snow across most of Nebraska.
Then the temperatures rose suddenly. So much snow melted so fast that all of the rivers in the state flooded at once. One of the Missouri River levees broke, and another was overtopped.
At least 720 million gallons of water filled the lower-third of the base like a bathtub, despite a massive sandbagging effort by Offutt airmen and civilian volunteers.
“We kind of had a premonition, this was going to go badly for us,” Armstrong said.
Others tried, and failed, to build a portable dam around a building that held a $234 million simulator for 55th Wing Rivet Joint and Cobra Ball crews. It was one of two mission simulators that were destroyed, along with three-fourths of Offutt’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs), used for handling classified information. Large hangars for the base’s RC-135 and E-4B reconnaissance jets were seriously damaged. So were the ready rooms for flight and mission crews standing alert in case of nuclear war.
The flood ultimately inundated about one-third of the base. Water managers called it a 500-year flood event.
“It was a catastrophe. The immediate impact was pretty unbelievable,” said Col. Mark Himes, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Omaha District, which is overseeing the post-flood reconstruction.
The 55th Wing had to quickly find office space for 3,000-plus workers, many of whom relocated to makeshift workspaces in the 80-year-old Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant and the Dougherty Conference Center.
The Wing resumed training flights three days after the flood.
“It didn’t stop us,” Armstrong said.
During the past three years, base officials assessed the damage and drew up plans to build 24 new facilities across the eight new campuses. They were designed to group similar functions together.
A year after the flood, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Little flood-related demolition and construction work had started yet because of a required environmental assessment.
“We’re taking the time to really think about how to do this,” Armstrong said.
Pandemic-related shortages and supply chain problems have already driven up costs. 55th Wing officials declined to give an updated cost estimate Monday, but an estimate in December pegged the likely price tag at $1.1 billion — up at least $300 million from initial estimates.
The campuses, and the expected duration of construction, include:
Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications Campus, including operations and alert facilities for E-4B airborne command post and E-6B Looking Glass crews. 30 months.
Satellite Communications Campus, with facilities allowing StratCom to communicate with airborne platforms. 24 months.
Operations Campus, including the 55th Operations Group and several squadrons. 54 months.
Logistics Readiness Squadron Campus, including facilities for planning, packing, shipping and storage of cargo. Spring 2023.
Security Forces Squadron Campus, including security forces headquarters building, firearms-training range, and kennel for military working dogs. 24 months.
Base Lake Campus, including outdoor recreation facilities. Spring 2023.
Flightline Campus, for storage and delivery of petroleum, cryogenics and deicer fluid for aircraft. June 2023.
Emergency Power Microgrid, to provide backup power for critical base facilities. 18 months.
The campuses are all being built in the same area that flooded three years ago. But Armstrong said engineers are taking precautions to avoid another catastrophe.
Levees surrounding the base already have been raised by about 2 feet, at a cost of $35 million.
And all new buildings are being elevated at least 3 feet higher than the flood levels reached in March 2019, on anthill-like islands as much as 9 feet high.