The Great Flood of 2011

The roar of the Missouri flowing through the 14 floodgates spanning the shared Nebraska and South Dakota border was a hungry lion waiting to pounce. Soon the nation’s longest river would attack Nebraska with one of the worst floods in its history.

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Sky High Waters - OMAHA

For people dropping into Omaha briefly via Eppley Airfield, the merciless Missouri River flood of 2011 was merely an inconvenience. But for the people on the ground there, this was the front line of a major battle to protect the airport.

Instead of taking the weekend off, the Omaha Airport Authority, over the Memorial Day holiday weekend began monitoring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ reservoir-release data.

“Realizing what was in front of us, we knew we needed to act quick. Never in the history of the airport had we seen anything like this,” said Dave Roth, director of planning and engineering for the Omaha Airport Authority. “As the week progressed, we knew we needed to assemble a highimpact team.”  

Roth put battle skills acquired as a captain with the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry Division to use, and brought together seven contractors, Alvine Engineering, HDR, Hawkins Construction, Kiewit, Lamp Rynearson and Associates, Thiele Geotech, and URS Corp. They often had battled one another in the past for the same projects, but now they were a floodfighting super team, joining forces to save the airport that brings in passengers, and $745 million to Omaha’s metropolitan area each year.

The levy experts at Kiewit had experience in New Orleans with the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and they suggested bringing URS Corp. on board. “We brought the best in,” Roth said. “Together, this was probably the most competent, highly skilled group of professionals I’ve ever worked with.”

Dennis Anderson of Thiele Geotech shares a similar sentiment. “This was one of the most satisfying projects I’ve worked on in 20 years,” Anderson said. “Logos and egos were checked at the door, and everyone worked together as a team.” Anderson said the mobilization of these seven companies was akin to invading a small country. And in late July, it looked as if the river might thwart their protective efforts.

“Most of the time we were pretty confident that we would prevail,” Anderson said. “But there was a week or two there, sometime around July 22, while checking groundwater levels in 29 places, when the water was rising fast and everyone was concerned that this time Mother Nature just might win.”

Lamp Rynearson and Associates, has been working at Eppley Airfield for 15 years. When floodwaters crept to within 5 feet of the top of the levy surrounding the airport, the company had already shifted employees who had been working on a runway project, and were reinforcing the back side of the levies with a blanket of sand and gravel, repairing sinkholes, and gathering groundwater data. “It’s hard to land an airplane when your runway has fallen into a sinkhole,” said Dan Owens, vice president of Lamp Rynearson and Associates.

Owens acknowledges that the flood fight was an unprecedented team effort to keep floodwaters at bay, including the hard work of 20 of his own employees, but he saves a special salute for Hawkins. “Around here, when we see the guys from Hawkins Construction, we say ‘Hawkins Construction-you saved the airport.’ ”

Hawkins Construction is well known to Omaha residents. The company often has as many as 20 highway projects ongoing in the city at any given time, and they range from $1 million to $70 million. And since the 1980s, Hawkins has performed more than $200 million worth of projects at Eppley. Nick Gable was on the ground there, with soaked boots, coordinating at the high point, leading 110 employees on a large but simple mission: protect the airport’s assets so the airport can maintain normal operations.

“We didn’t ever know what the next day had in store for us, but we attacked it.” Gable said. “We threw just about everything we had at it, and never thought we were ready to sink.”

On a four-wheeler riding along the top of a levy, Tom Swanek patrolled the airport perimeter, inspecting some of the 400,000 sandbags that Hawkins Construction deployed against the mother of all floods. Swanek started his career with the Omaha Airport Authority at the young age of 21. And in the 35 years since, he's never seen a flood like the Great Flood of 2011. The field maintenance manager responsible for the airfield is used to moving snow, mowing and performing electrical work. But battling a force of nature like the Missouri River didn't come naturally for Swanek.

Groundwater rising from under the airfield, not the actual river itself, was Swanek's main concern. "We'd fill up one sandboil, and another one would pop up somewhere else," Swanek said. "But we protected all of the assets."

As he put on mile after mile patrolling Eppley on his trusty four-wheeler, and threw a beach's worth of sandbags, there were times that Swanek wondered if it would work. "We watched the water come up. And there were days that were questionable. But we were vigilant. I thought that as long as the levy held, we could make it through. And, we did."


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