When it came time for 29 Nebraska National Guard members to “stand down” from their duties monitoring Omaha's levees Sunday, local officials stood up and applauded.
Gordon Andersen of the Omaha Public Works Department said that it's hard to find enough superlatives to cover the job the Guard has done over the past 44 days of Missouri River flooding.
“These men and women have been out in the toughest weather there is — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — sometimes in hip waders and life jackets,” Andersen said. “At times it's been so hot that rainstorms were welcome.”
At noon Sunday the Guard handed over to private contractors the task of checking the city's 13 miles of levees for sand boils, seepage and varmints. Bellevue and other Nebraska cities along the Missouri River also began monitoring their own levees.
Omaha officials had asked Gov. Dave Heineman and his adjutant general to keep Guard members monitoring the city's levees through August. That would have allowed the city to focus its efforts elsewhere and be spared some of the costs of the metropolitan area's flood fight.
But in a letter from the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, the state said it believed the city was capable of monitoring the levees itself.
“We certainly were disappointed,” said Marty Grate of the city's Public Works Department.
The city estimates it will spend $80,000 in August to monitor the levees with city employees and private contractors. As of mid-July the city had spent $5.4 million to counter flooding.
Andersen said about “700 issues” have been noted by the Guard since it took over levee duties on June 17, including the identification of hundreds of varmint holes.
“Muskrats, moles, pocket gophers . . . any burrowing animals can damage a levee,” Andersen said. “They burrow in near the waterline of the river and that lets water in to weaken the whole levee.”
When an animal hole is found it is filled in and a sandbag is placed on top to keep the rodent out. A red flag is placed next to the hole to let city workers know it is a problem spot.
The guardsmen, from the 170th Air Refueling Wing at Offutt Air Force Base and the 155th Air Refueling Wing in Lincoln, were not made available for interviews. During a brief walk along the levee, however, guardsmen could be heard joking about “Varmint Cong” — apparently a reference to groundskeeper
Carl Spackler's characterization of gophers in the 1980 movie “Caddyshack.”
Andersen smiled at the reference but said the search for varmint holes is an important duty.
“It seems like a little problem, but (the burrows) can actually turn into a very big problem if they are not taken care of quickly,” Andersen said. “Some of those animals can dig very large holes, and the longer they are there, the more they dig.”
Grate said the guardsmen kept good records of the levee problems they noticed, so the city will be able to pick up where they left off. Aside from the varmint problem, Omaha's levees have a number of sand boils and sinkholes.
Sand boils are common occurrences during a flood. They occur when there is difference in pressure on two sides of a levee that results in water seeping through and pushing up — along with sand and dirt — on the backside of the levee.
“We are not aware of any deep incisions (in the levee) but we will have to wait for the water to come down before we know for sure,” Grate said. “We want to make it clear that the levees remain closed to the public and the police are ticketing anyone who goes onto the levee.”
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