The Air Force now says it needs at least $420 million to clean up Offutt Air Force Base and repair or replace structures damaged in the March floods, a senior Air Force official told The World-Herald Wednesday.
John Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, said about 60 structures were damaged beyond repair and must be torn down — including the longtime headquarters of the 55th Wing, the largest military unit on the base. They were damaged by floodwaters that reached as high as 9 feet in some buildings, and by a toxic sludge left behind when they receded.
“It wasn’t just the water, it was what was in the water,” Henderson said.
The latest cost is higher than the $350 million estimate issued last month by outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. At the time, she called that figure “an initial planning estimate,” and it was part of a $4.9 billion funding request that also would cover reconstruction of Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Hurricane Michael nearly leveled the base with Category 5 winds last fall.
Flooding at Offutt occurred March 15-17, when a major blizzard was followed by a quick warm-up that melted record February snowfall across Nebraska and western Iowa. Floodwaters overwhelmed two levees that protect Offutt, near the confluence of the Missouri and Platte Rivers.
All together, 137 structures suffered flood damage. At least 44 were occupied buildings with office space totaling 1.2 million square feet. About one-third of the base, including everything south and east of Offutt’s single runway, sits on lower ground and was flooded. The rest of the base, including the U.S. Strategic Command headquarters and all base housing, suffered no flood damage.
Henderson said $120 million is needed this year for cleanup and repair — to preserve structures that can be saved, and to cover the costs of moving workers into temporary work space.
The remaining $300 million is to design and build new structures and would be needed over a three-year cycle. Henderson said as many of the buildings as possible would be built on higher ground, including a satellite communications facility.
Only operations that require proximity to the runway, such as the headquarters of the 55th Security Forces Squadron, would be rebuilt in the flooded area.
Those buildings, he said, would be designed to withstand future floods.
Henderson spoke with The World-Herald shortly before testifying before the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness subcommittee Wednesday afternoon on several topics, including fortifying bases against the future likelihood of stronger storms fueled by climate change.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-California, the subcommittee’s chairman, said “the design plans for rebuilding are going to be watched very closely.”
Henderson told The World-Herald it’s important that the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District move ahead with a $30 million project to raise the two levees nearest Offutt. The two-year project was slated to begin this spring, but construction has been delayed because of flood damage to the levees. It is being funded by the state and local governments and the NRD.
John Winkler, the district’s general manager, said the NRD has completed a $500,000 emergency patch on the R-613 levee, which broke in March. The district is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess other damage to the two levees from scouring and erosion. The district and the Corps also must work out who will pay.
Winkler said the contractors also will need a stretch of dry weather to get started, as well as a lowering of the water levels on the Missouri.
Henderson, a former Army colonel, lives in Omaha and commutes to Washington, D.C. He headed the Omaha district of the corps for two years before retiring in 2017.