Nebraska National Guard leaders will turn the ceremonial first shovel of dirt Friday on a major rebuilding project at their Camp Ashland training site after two disastrous floods in the past five years.
The Guard recently awarded a $35 million contract to replace 28 single-story buildings that were inundated in 2015, rebuilt, and then destroyed again when floodwaters from the Platte River and its Salt Creek tributary filled the base like a saucer with up to 8 feet of water during the Great Nebraska Flood of March 2019.
They’ll be replaced with seven new classroom, barracks and administrative buildings, all built on stilt pilings that National Guard Col. Shane Martin said he hopes will place them above any future floods at the 1,184-acre site on the Platte River. It’s the centerpiece project of a $62 million restoration effort at the camp that is expected to take until the fall of 2022.
“The new buildings are approximately 12 feet off the ground,” said Martin, the Guard’s construction and facilities management officer. “We don’t want to have the same problem recur again.”
At the same time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is embarking on an $8.5 million project to extend a 7-foot concrete bulkhead that currently runs inside the Platte River levee. Now it will cover the full length of the camp. No fortifications are planned at this time on the south side of the base, Martin said. Both the 2015 and 2019 floods started when Salt Creek spilled over into the camp.
Gov. Pete Ricketts and Sen. Deb Fischer will receive a tour of the site before the ceremony Friday afternoon. Guard officials credit Fischer, as well as the rest of the state’s congressional delegation, with securing the money to rebuild Camp Ashland. In total, Congress provided $62.3 million. Other elements of the project include:
- $4.9 million for design work.
- $8.1 million to repair existing buildings and infrastructure.
- $3.6 million for a new maintenance building and a new gym.
- $2.2 million to replace furniture and equipment.
Camp Ashland, 30 miles southwest of Omaha, is a regional training center used by as many as 100,000 National Guard, Army and Army Reserve members from Nebraska and nearby states.
It gained a national profile when 57 Americans were quarantined in one of the surviving buildings there in February after being evacuated from Wuhan, China, the earliest hot spot in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The destructive flood began March 13, 2019, after Salt Creek, which borders Camp Ashland on the south, spilled over into the camp. For the next three days, the swollen Platte clawed away at the earthen levee protecting the base on the east.
Eventually, the river ripped a wide gash in the levee and sent a torrent of water through the abandoned camp. It overtopped by 2 to 4 feet floodgates that had been installed after the 2015 flood — which at the time was called a once-in-1,000-years storm. Every building was damaged except for a few that had been built on stilts in the 1990s.
Martin said sand, trees and roots that covered the camp at depths of up to 5 feet have been removed. Much of it was used to help plug holes in the levee and replace about 7 acres of land that was washed away.
“Most all the sand stayed on the site and replaced what was lost,” he said.
Some experts question whether it makes sense to rebuild in a spot that’s experienced two similar off-the-charts floods in such a short time.
Elizabeth Chalecki, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, focuses her research on climate change and defense policy. Because of climate change, she said, once-rare weather events such as the ones that hit Camp Ashland in the past decade can be expected as often as every two or three years.
“They can rebuild to protect against the last flood, but what about the next one?” said Chalecki, who this month started a research fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “This isn’t a one-off. It’s going to keep happening.”
But Martin said the National Guard can’t easily replace Camp Ashland.
The base is large and conveniently located near Interstate 80. It’s been in use for at least 100 years and is home to Memorial Hall, a large auditorium built in 1929 with small donations from National Guard soldiers of that era. The state has a lot of money invested in roads, electricity and other infrastructure that would be very costly to rebuild someplace else — if they could even find a site.
“The history we have, the location we have — to find 1,100 acres between Lincoln and Omaha, it’s just not possible,” Martin said. “The cost to replace that would be astronomical.”
Chalecki said the extreme weather events and rising oceans brought on by climate change are going to force the Defense Department to shore up or abandon hundreds of its facilities in the U.S. and around the world.
Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, suffered damage totaling $6.6 billion from major hurricanes in 2018. Damage at Offutt Air Force Base from the same 2019 flood that wrecked Camp Ashland amounted to at least $790 million and could reach $1 billion, Air Force engineers estimate.
“It’s going to compromise readiness at facilities all across the country,” Chalecki said. “They are going to have to consider how much money they want to keep spending to rebuild these bases.”
Martin believes the improvements will keep the buildings at Camp Ashland above any future floods.
“This is a small investment and a smart investment,” he said.
Chalecki is wary but will keep her fingers crossed.
“I hope the stilts work,” she said. “It’s my tax dollars, too.”