COUNCIL BLUFFS — This spot, a disabled pump station next to the Veterans Memorial Bridge, was ground zero in the fight to save the homes of about 30,000 people from this summer's historic flooding.
You'd have to look closely to see that the pump station and its pad are listing. To most folks, a several-inch drop in the sidewalk would seem unremarkable.
But to experts, those were signs that the levee protecting Council Bluffs from the Missouri River was failing. Had it broken, the western side of town would have filled like a bowl.
The sudden drop and listing of the pavement prompted a furious effort in early July to plug a pipe that was siphoning away the levee, to build a backup levee, to shore up the existing levee and to install an emergency replacement pump.
Over about three days, a contractor worked 24/7.
"It looks a lot better now, but it was actively failing," said Bryan Flere, levee safety program manager for the Omaha district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "We moved fast. We knew a sinkhole was there, we knew were losing a great amount of (levee) material."
The damaged levee marked the most significant single threat to homes in the metropolitan Omaha area, said John Bertino, chief of engineering for the corps' Omaha district.
Bertino and Greg Reeder, public works director for Council Bluffs, said there were other serious problems. Reeder said two other stretches of Council Bluffs levees had "do-something-fast" problems: one between Interstate 480 and Harrah's Casino, the other at the 28th Street pumping station.
"What strikes me most is the vigilance that it took," Reeder said. "It was 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Every day seemed like a tense day."
Omaha had its own battles, including sand boils near the Omaha Correctional Center. The rising river exerted so much groundwater pressure on the dry side of the levee that water shot up through cracks in the floor of an outbuilding in the vicinity, Omaha officials said.
Emergency measures at those sites were part of a larger battle by the corps, cities and others to hold the levees in place.
Surveillance teams flagged about 900 problems along the metropolitan area's levees, said Monique Farmer, corps spokeswoman. Some were minor, but others were severe.
The corps was notified of the problem near Veterans Memorial Bridge on July 4, and by the next day, she said, it was obvious that the levee was failing.
The cost of that emergency repair was folded into a larger contract. Farmer said the Omaha district of the corps this summer issued nearly $10 million in contracts to shore up metro area levees. In total, the corps' Omaha district estimates it spent $56 million in direct and indirect costs battling the river throughout its share of the basin.
Local governments and Eppley Airfield's Omaha Airport Authority have spent an additional $42 million monitoring levees, pumping out groundwater and replumbing the metro area's drainage system, with bills still coming in.
There's little doubt, officials said, that those efforts kept the river at bay.
Bertino said the corps spent a significant portion of its money to ward off levee failures in the Omaha area. In harm's way were the homes of about 30,000 people in Council Bluffs and nearly 11,000 in Omaha. Also at risk were Eppley Airfield, Offutt Air Force Base and critical infrastructure, such as sewage treatment plants.
Bertino said communities and levee boards were the first line of defense in catching problems. Metro area officials were well-organized and implemented a good plan for checking the levees, he said.
"Issues that could have become catastrophic were caught early and dealt with. The bottom line is that both levee systems came through without failure, without inundating people's houses," Bertino said.
That effort to stay abreast of threats to the levees was not lost on John Poore, chairman of the M&P Missouri River Levee District, which protects an industrial, agricultural and residential area south of the Bluffs, including Interstate 29 and Highways 370 and 34, an ethanol plant and the MidAmerican Energy coal plant.
Poore and Flere knew they had problems along that levee, and that's why a corps contractor filled eroded spots with rock and blanketed weak areas alongside the levee with tons of sand and gravel.
Crews had to raise the road to get access to the levee before abandoning it to rising waters and shoring up another access road.
It wasn't until the flooding abated that they fully appreciated the threat, Flere said.
Along the base of the levee, water remains pooled in deep holes scoured as the river rushed past. Had that continued, the scour would have undermined the levee south of Lake Manawa.
"The levees had gotten soft and were seeping badly," Poore said. "If we'd had any heavy rains to the north, we would have been in very serious trouble."
Poore said he spent many a night checking the levee in the dark, with water slopping against each side.
"It's kind of scary. You just do what you got to do."
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