Camp Ashland never stood a chance.
On St. Patrick’s Day weekend, a violent chute of water raged through a gash in the levee that for decades protected the Nebraska National Guard’s main training site from the Platte River.
The torrent not only ripped the heart out of a 15-foot-high berm, but also scoured away as much as 25 feet of soil beneath it.
Floodwaters surged into classrooms, barracks and offices, wrecking furniture and tools and leaving a muddy watermark 5 feet high on inside walls.
“It had to be a lot of force. Just incredible,” said Col. Shane Martin, the Nebraska Guard’s construction and facilities-management officer. “It’s not just a breach in the levee. It’s a dramatic erosion of the land underneath.”
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Martin, a National Guard veteran, has seen a flood or two. His car was damaged in high waters at Camp Ashland in 1993. He supervised the $3.7 million reconstruction of the camp after what he described as a 1-in-1,000-year storm inundated it in May 2015, installing what seemed to be impregnable flood-control barriers.
This recent flooding, he said, was immeasurably worse than anything in the camp’s 100-year history. And it is almost certain to require much more expensive repairs this time around.
“It’s historic on all levels,” Martin said. “We can’t have foreseen these old levees that were built years and years ago would fail.”
Camp Ashland is one of the Midwest’s most important Army training centers. It’s the site of development courses each year for 80,000 to 100,000 soldiers, from the active-duty Army and Army Reserve as well as the National Guard, coming from neighboring states as well as Nebraska.
“This is the primary schoolhouse for the National Guard in Nebraska,” Martin said. He said classes will continue at another training camp, in Hastings.
About 225 newly minted Army sergeants from across the Midwest were there for a leadership course about three weeks ago when a “bomb cyclone” storm dumped heavy rain on top of eastern Nebraska’s rapidly melting snow, causing rivers throughout the region to overflow. The sergeants were evacuated to Mead, and then to Omaha.
At Camp Ashland, the swollen Platte chewed away at levees and overtopped them March 14 and 15. The levee breach over that weekend delivered the coup de grâce.
Fifty-one of 62 buildings on the base sustained water damage. Those that didn’t were barracks built years ago on stilts that kept them above the floodwater.
Martin said it could cost up to $50 million to rebuild the way he wants to.
“We would like to raise everything to stilts,” Martin said. “Everything that’s raised up was perfectly dry.”
In 2015, floodwaters just touched the top of stairs outside Memorial Hall, the venerable riverfront meeting hall built in 1929, scene of ceremonial events and other large gatherings. This time, water flowed 2 feet deep across the polished wooden floors, causing them to swell and buckle.
“In here, it just destroyed things,” Martin said as he gave a World-Herald news team a tour of the facility. “This building’s never had water in it before.”
The floods laid waste to a nearby maintenance building, where tools were stored and a few soldiers had offices. Now it’s a shambles, with furniture, papers and equipment scattered helter-skelter inside. Everything is caked with mud.
Martin said he believes it is a total loss and will probably be torn down.
The base’s administrative headquarters — called “The Barn,” because it used to be one before it was remodeled — filled with water so deep that the furniture floated. Martin found muddy swirls atop a 5-foot countertop. A refrigerator was found in the breakroom, where it belonged, but upside down.
He said The Barn probably will be rebuilt, but only for storage. Offices will move to another building.
The destruction is similar in a row of low structures near the levee used as troop bays and storage buildings. After the 2015 flood, Martin had floodgates installed over the bottom of the doors to these buildings. The floodgates are aluminum panels about 2½ feet high that can be popped quickly into waterproof frames to keep water from pushing open doors and sloshing inside.
This time, though, the water reached even higher than in 2015.
“The water came over the floodgates. Then some of the logs crushed through my doors,” Martin said. “We thought we had everything covered. We didn’t anticipate water coming in through the windows.”
Some of the worst damage can’t be seen because it is to power and water lines that are underground or behind walls. Floating debris crushed some transformer boxes. Sand and mud is jammed into electrical outlets and boxes.
“All the utilities are compromised,” Martin said.
It took a week for floodwaters to recede enough for assessment teams to get boots on the ground. They found lakes and streams in places where none had been before. They had difficulty even finding the roads.
But they got to work. Already most roads have been cleared and some regraveled. Debris has been hauled away.
Martin said the Army Corps of Engineers has visited daily to help and advise. A contract has been signed to plug the giant hole in the levee.
He said it’s critical to clean and dry buildings as soon as possible. If mold takes hold in the walls and ductwork, problems will multiply.
“We’re going to have a whole bunch of soldier labor and hopefully salvage everything we can,” Martin said. “If we can clean it, we will.”
The National Guard self-insures its bases. Martin said reconstruction funds will come from the federal government, not Nebraska taxpayers. He said Camp Ashland will certainly be rebuilt. Too much is already invested in roads and utilities to abandon it. And the Nebraska National Guard has a long history there that is difficult to walk away from.
“We’re going to put it back to what’s logical,” he said. “We have a lot of history, lots of buildings that are perfectly viable.”
He said he hopes to reopen the site with at least a bare-bones operation in about two months. It’s too soon to tell when the camp will be fully rebuilt, though he plans to submit a request for reconstruction funds next week.
Despite the double whammy of two unthinkable floods in just four years, Martin still believes its a great place for training.
“It’s a well-designed site. I just hate that it had this happen to it,” he said. “What a mess.”