The floods of 2019 have left hundreds of aircraft maintainers working in Offutt Air Force Base’s two largest hangars without hot water or toilets.
For a year, that has been an unpleasant inconvenience. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic making frequent hand-washing necessary, some fear that the situation could be a hazard to their health.
“Some of us cannot practice better preventative measures such as washing our hands (be)cause our facility has no Restroom,” one worker at the Bennie L. Davis Aircraft Maintenance Complex wrote in response to a post on the 55th Wing Commander’s Facebook page. “How can you ensure worker safety and illness avoidance if you can’t supply us with the necessary essentials?”
Floodwaters from the overflowing Missouri River overwhelmed two levees and swamped the southern third of Offutt last March, causing almost $1 billion worth of damage. They inundated 44 occupied buildings and destroyed several sewage lift stations.
The Bennie Davis facility has cold and lukewarm running water, but the Allman Maintenance Facility has none.
In a video posted on his Facebook page last weekend, Wing Commander Col. Gavin Marks promised to speed up repairs.
He said he would also get more hand-washing and cleaning supplies to the Bennie Davis building and would reduce the number of people who must work there.
“We’re moving fast,” Marks said. “We’re moving at the speed of heat right now to get that place repaired as quickly as possible.”
Last spring, the water was at least 2 feet deep in the Bennie Davis facility, near the edge of the floodwaters. It was several feet deeper farther south at the Allman facility, where four giant E-4B airborne command post planes are housed.
Within weeks, the water receded. Military and civilian maintenance crews returned to work in the two buildings — with portable toilets.
They’re still in use now.
Tim Slobodnik, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1486, which includes civilian aircraft mechanics at Offutt, said engineers installed a temporary sewer lift station to replace the flood-damaged one last summer.
“It couldn’t handle the long-term use,” he said.
Workers at the Bennie Davis facility used to use the bathroom at the nearby Field House, Offutt’s large gym. But that has been closed since last week because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief Master Sgt. Brian Thomas, the 55th Wing’s command chief, said he and Marks “are not happy about” the lack of indoor toilets at Bennie Davis.
“We fully understand that for a year now, we’ve asked you to use Port-a-Johns,” he said. “(We) will double down even more about trying to repair the damaged lift stations.”
In response to a follow-up query from The World-Herald, 55th Wing spokesman Ryan Hansen said the lift stations are expected to be repaired by early April.
He also said the Wing will install several water heaters in the building in the next several weeks so workers can wash with hot water.
It’s less clear when relief will come to the Allman facility, which is at the remote southern end of the runway.
“There are contractors evaluating that facility,” Hansen said in an email. “Restoration efforts are ongoing.”
Slobodnik said the union and the Wing have been cooperating to cope with the flood-induced water and sewer problems, and he is confident that the lift stations will be repaired next month.
“It hasn’t been too bad,” he said. “We’re doing what we can to keep the mission going.”