The Omaha Airport Authority pushed forward Thursday with its large-scale operation to protect Nebraska's largest airport from floodwaters, even as several Omaha companies reportedly made plans to move their private aircraft away from Eppley Airfield.
Airport officials' massive flood-fighting campaign is focused on constructing about 70 pumping wells designed to control a rising water table that threatens airport infrastructure.
Officials' eyes also were on 66 known “distressed areas” on airport property — such as sand boils on the Missouri River levee that rings Eppley, or sinkholes that collapse around underground pipes from the stress of high groundwater levels.
Despite the challenges, airport officials are confident they'll be able to handle what is sure to be a months-long haul. They said the flooding has not disrupted any airport operations to date and expect that trend to hold.
“We've got the best contractors working for us,” said David Roth, chief of Eppley's engineering wing. “And they're doing a phenomenal job.”
Nevertheless, some local companies weren't taking any chances.
John Wood, executive director of the Lincoln Airport Authority, said he was aware of at least four Omaha companies that have contacted corporate air operators in the capital city to develop contingency plans.
Wood said they are Mutual of Omaha, Kiewit Corp., ConAgra Foods and the Omaha office of Jet Linx Aviation.
Three major airlines, two air freight companies, rental car companies and government agencies responsible for air travel have also contacted airport officials in Lincoln and elsewhere to discuss backup plans should Eppley be incapacitated.
“We're not anticipating an Eppley shutdown,” Wood said. “We're just trying to plan so if something bad happens, we can do what we can to keep eastern Nebraska connected to the air transportation system.”
Jim Nolan, a Mutual spokesman, confirmed that the company moved its private jet to Lincoln and relocated the seven staff members it bases at Eppley to the company's corporate headquarters. The move was precautionary, the spokesman said.
“We felt as though it was prudent to make these steps in case something unexpected happened with the levee or the groundwater,” Nolan said. “We're basically taking it on a day-to-day basis. Everyone has said this could be a several-months-long process, so we'll continue to monitor it.”
Steve Coufal, executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority, said his organization does not track corporate or general aviation aircraft operations.
“Nor can I speak to the actions of any corporate or individual aircraft owner,” he said. “Each owner or operator has their own contingency plan and conducts their own risk analysis. We do continue to see normal and significant general aviation operations at Eppley.”
Several private jets were quietly nestled in their Eppley hangars Thursday as a nearby pumping station drew groundwater away from a 30-foot sinkhole so workers could repair it.
Contractors expected to have 27 wells drilled, with about half of those pumping water, by the end of the day.
Eventually, many of the pumps will pump about 1,000 gallons of groundwater per second from 90 feet below ground, then over Eppley's levee and back into the swollen Missouri River.
Officials hope the operation will drop groundwater levels by 15 feet. Pumping the water out should stabilize the airport's infield and prevent further sinkholes, Roth said.
So far, the airport authority has spent $2.5 million on the effort to keep floodwaters away from Eppley. The bill is expected to rise to $15.5 million or more by the end of August.
“Preventative measures on this far exceed (the cost of) fixing these sinkholes,” Roth said as he examined a large sinkhole on the airport's east side. “If this goes on until middle or late fall, and the water tables are this high, you're going to continue to see this.”
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