The construction project that will save Offutt Air Force Base is ready to start.

Gov. Pete Ricketts and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., headlined a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning at Bellevue’s American Heroes Park for a project to raise and widen two levees that protect Offutt as well as the Papillion Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, which services the city of Omaha.

“This base has strategic importance for our country,” Bacon told a crowd of about 50 dignitaries and reporters gathered for the event. “This levee is a linchpin. It’s the heart of rebuilding, making sure we can safeguard this (base) for decades to come.”

The $32 million project has been in the planning stages for 10 years and is being funded by the state, Sarpy County, the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District and the cities of Omaha and Bellevue.

“It took a long time and a tremendous effort to get to this point,” said John Winkler, general manager of the natural resources district.

The two levees, called R-613 and R-616, date to the 1970s and ’80s. After Hurricane Katrina caused levee failures that killed hundreds of people in New Orleans in 2005, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied its levees on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

The corps found the levees that protect Offutt wanting. They were high enough to hold back a flood that has a 1% chance of occurring in a given year, based on insurance risk tables.

The Defense Department directed the natural resources district to raise and widen the levees, without offering to pay. The corps’ approval process took five years, and the NRD led an effort to gather funds. Nebraska contributed $13.7 million, while Bellevue, Omaha and Sarpy County each kicked in $3 million.

“This is a good example of multiple agencies working hand in hand,” said Col. John Hudson, commander of the corps’ Omaha District.

The project involves building an embankment on the side of each levee away from the river, making the levee higher, wider and flatter.

“By raising the levees one to three feet, and widening them two to four feet, we’ll be able to protect this resource,” Ricketts said. “We’ll be able to protect this resource.”

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Work was about to start in March when Nebraska experienced the worst outbreak of flooding in the state’s history. One of the levees protecting Offutt, the water plant and hundreds of nearby homes broke, and the other was overtopped. About one-third of Offutt was flooded. Damage so far has totaled $790 million and is expected to reach as high as $1 billion.

“I had tears in my eyes, seeing the water sweep across the southeast portion of the base,” Bacon said. “We can’t let that happen again.”

He said the Air Force would not have agreed to spend $170 million to replace Offutt’s decrepit runway if not for the levee upgrades. Nor would it have agreed to spend $300 million to replace buildings destroyed in the flood.

The water treatment plant suffered $35 million in damage, and $10 million has already been spent to repair flood damage to the levees. About 400 homes and 50 businesses were inundated.

“You may have noticed, I didn’t thank Mother Nature,” Winkler said. “She didn’t help.”

The levee improvement project is expect to be complete by 2021.

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