The military helicopter's black shadow dances on an engorged Missouri River as the aircraft slowly loops the flood-encircled Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station — the same left-leaning turns the pilot navigated two days prior.
Photo Showcase:Soldiers Watch Over the Levees
Warrant Officer Boe Searight, 32, with the Nebraska Air National Guard wants the infrared camera mounted under the chopper to record similar flood scenes for levee experts on the ground to compare.
He and his colleague Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eric Schriner also are looking for new signs of trouble for the flooded plant.
“Keep daily eyes on it and see if anything changes,” says Schriner, 31.
Far below, on mosquito-infested riverbanks, two-person crews with the Nebraska National Guard and Iowa National Guard patrol the Omaha and Council Bluffs levees in mud-caked boots.
Members of the Guard are the front-line levee watchers in an operation that clearly has high stakes: Levees protect about 40,000 people from homelessness in the neighboring river cities — as well as the region's key airport.
The levee watchers are out there right now — three shifts a day, all week, searching for gopher holes, chasing away sightseers who could fall from the levees, and checking for signs of water seepage.
More than 130 men and women with the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard work each day for flood duty, along with 120 from the Iowa Army and Air National Guard.
The idea is to spot trouble early. Levees don't always give notice before they rupture, but more often than not they do.
If trouble is spotted, steps can be taken to shore up or boost a weakened levee.
Already at Eppley Airfield, Guard members have spotted several sand boils near the southern edge of the levee system that protects it. Contractors hired by the city quickly put down a “seepage blanket” on the land side of the levee and covered it with gravel, stopping the water from seeping and undermining the barrier.
“Levees show signs of stress and deterioration, typically, before failure,” said Nicholas Pinter, a levee expert and geology professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
What the levee watchers do matters, and they know why. Many served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they consider this mission just as important.
“I really wanted to jump on board and serve my community,” says Staff Sgt. Douglas Wiese, 28, an Omaha native who served about a year in Iraq.
“This feels a little more special, helping my friends and family and the city I grew up with,” Wiese says one rainy afternoon as he patrols a levee near the airport on a Polaris all-terrain vehicle with Staff Sgt. Frank Holman, 31, of Bellevue.
Each two-person crew that walks and rides the levees becomes familiar with its stretch of river. Crews are assigned certain segments, which they patrol six days a week.
They might walk or drive their individual levee stretch six or eight times a shift.
Holman and Wiese patrol about three miles near Eppley.
They walk the grassy slopes of the levee or ride along its top, talking about mosquitoes and the Omaha skyline. The bugs at night, they say, are “incredible,” especially the mosquitoes.
“They're not like the ones you find in your backyard. They're monsters,” Holman says.
They know where wild turkeys scratch the levee — not a major problem — and where any animals have burrowed.
Gopher or badger holes can undermine a levee, if water is allowed to get into the hole. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials speculated that a badger or gopher hole might have undermined an earthen levee that breached near Hamburg, Iowa.
“Hey, did you see that? That's a pretty big mound of dirt,” Wiese says as he pulls over the vehicle to check some changes.
They mark freshly dug animal holes with a red flag and radio a report into the city. The city then sends a crew to check out the hole and, if necessary, fill it.
Shortly after, lightning streaks across the sky and the rain pours. The two head for shelter at the command center. “We've been out a couple of times in the rain, and rushed back in (during) a storm,” Holman says.
Up in the air, the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter pilots also get very familiar with their view of the levees. They often patrol long stretches of the river, from Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station near Blair down to Lake Waconda.
Landmarks, such as grain bins and center pivots, allow the pilots to compare their river observations from day to day. If they spot anything unusual, they report it to the Nebraska Emergency Management Center, which gets a copy of their video.
“If you look at the basketball (hoop), it looks like the water is down a little below the rim,” Searight says as the helicopter zooms over a flooded home south of the Bellevue toll bridge.
The pilots make two swoops over Bellevue's sewage treatment plant, taking note of recent sandbags added to protect the plant and pumps.
Below, the Missouri is clearly a river gone wild. It has turned some farmhouses into isolated islands, accessible only by boat. Wooded areas along the river look like Florida swamp groves buried in water.
Near Lake Waconda, the pilots make their last levee video before banking the helicopter to the right and returning to Omaha for fuel.
On the ground, Searight appears to be uncomfortable talking about the hours he is logging in the sky. Instead, the former truck driver from Stanton, Neb., prefers to talk about the people on the ground — the people he has seen shoring up levees or throwing sandbags.
“There's a lot of people doing a lot of hard work,” he says.
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