Dried corn stalks on a debris-crumpled fence and an administration building ripped to the studs hint at what happened here two months ago.
So does the faint, musty odor of flood-soaked ground at the 260-acre Papillion Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Sarpy County.
The City of Omaha’s plant, which cleans sewage from about two-thirds of the metro area, was knocked offline March 15 by historic flooding.
On May 16, the plant resumed full treatment. That includes removing toilet paper, flushable wipes and other debris that don’t dissolve, along with treating number 1 and number 2.
To those who saw what the plant looked like on March 15, including plant manager Dave Sykora, it’s a minor miracle that the plant is already back in business.
“I thought it would take four or five months of work to get us back to where we are,” he said Wednesday. “It’s hard to explain how bad it was.”
Damage was so severe — about $35 million worth — that it forced the Public Works Department to shut down the plant and pump raw sewage into the Missouri River for 33 days. (Some plant operations resumed in April.) The longest the plant had released sewage directly into the river previously was three days, after a tornado damaged the plant in 2017.
Here’s what the plant’s 33 workers encountered in mid-March:
- Half of the plant’s 30 buildings were inundated by two to three feet of floodwater.
- The systems that deliver electricity to the pumps and controls that help the plant break down waste were underwater.
- The command center that hosts the servers that automate much of the plant flooded. The administration building next door flooded, too.
- About a mile of tunnels that connect the plant’s buildings and carry many of the pipes and fiber-optic cables that tie it to the outside world were full of water.
- Human waste coated much of the plant, requiring hazardous waste crews to clean up the mess before repairs could start.
- The road to the plant also flooded. The first crews to visit the plant after it was abandoned had to get permission to drive over a levee to reach it.
When the waters pulled back over the next two weeks, crews confronted mountains of debris, including corn stalks, propane tanks, telephone poles and pieces of roadway.
Recovery was a 24/7 operation for up to 300 people for more than a month, including outside crews from HDR Inc., Eriksen Construction and others.
Some Public Works employees didn’t get a day off after the flood until mid-April, said Jim Theiler, the department’s assistant director who oversees the plant.
The department hasn’t had time yet to calculate the hours crews worked to reclaim the plant.
One reason for the long hours: Much of the plant’s equipment is being operated manually until new cables and computers can be installed.
“You figure out real quickly how much work automation saves,” Sykora said.
About half of the plant remains under construction. The administration building and operations center still need to be finished. Equipment with temporary fixes needs to be replaced. The department expects to finish that work in six to eight months.
The final tab and who pays won’t be known for some time. The Federal Emergency Management Agency typically pays 75 percent of public damage claims. The state picks up about 12.5 percent, and the city and its private insurer pick up the rest.
Workers are running the plant in construction trailers on the property. They’re putting up a new fence to slow down looters.
But off the east end of the property, you can still see the remnants of the flood, water on once-dry land that looks like the nearby Papillion Creek.
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The plant is protected by the same levees as Offutt Air Force Base, which also faced massive flooding in March.
But the plant is on lower ground to allow gravity to bring sewage its way. It sits along the east end of the Papio Creek, where it flows into the Missouri River.
Improvements to the levee system are vital, officials say. Once the levee repairs are done, work will begin on a $30 million project to raise the levees by two feet. The entire project is expected to be complete by December 2020.
Congress could speed up the completion of the flood defenses if the Senate passed an appropriations bill that lets all the work on the levees be done simultaneously, local officials said. Currently, the levees have to be repaired before improvements can be made.
“With the levee improvement, a majority of damage to the base and the treatment plant would’ve been negated,” said John Winkler, general manager of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.
“It would’ve limited it tremendously.”