Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has given a crucial reassurance to Offutt Air Force Base. The massive flooding will not shake the Air Force’s firm, long-term commitment to the base, she says.
“The U.S. Air Force will rebuild Offutt Air Force Base,” Wilson said after a tour of the base grounds Friday. “We’ll make this base even better than it was a week and a half ago.”
Offutt is one of Nebraska’s largest employers, with about 9,000 military and civilian workers and an economic impact of $1.7 billion. More than half of the base’s employees work for the 55th Wing.
Wilson’s statement should remove any uncertainty Nebraskans may have had that the Offutt flooding would erode the Air Force leadership’s commitment to the base, which also houses the U.S. Strategic Command.
The flood delivered a major blow to the base, putting about 60 structures, including the 55th Wing headquarters and two major aircraft maintenance hangars, under 2 to 8 feet of water. A base spokesman put the damage at “tens of millions” of dollars.
The damage has exceeded the 2011 Missouri River flooding as well as the EF-1 tornado that struck the base in 2017. Damage from the tornado totaled about $20 million.
Offutt staff and community volunteers showed admirable dedication in their effort to hold back the waters. Hundreds of Offutt staff members, with support from local volunteers, filled and stacked tens of thousands of sandbags. Still, the flood waters — a flash flood on an epic scale — proved too much.
“When they say ‘flash flood,’ they’re not kidding,” said Col. J. David Norton, the 55th Wing’s top engineer.
Wilson rightly praised that work and the community spirit it showed. ”When things went really wrong here a week ago, Nebraskans really helped Offutt Air Force Base,” she said. “And that says something about the neighborliness of Nebraskans that really matters to the United States Air Force.” That effort likely saved the base from additional millions of dollars in damage.
The Nebraska National Guard’s coordination with the 55th Wing has been especially valuable, as the Guard has opened its facilities at the Lincoln Airport to some of the 55th’s aircraft.
“The airmen of this Wing are extremely resilient,” said Col. Michael Manion, the 55th Wing commander. “We were able to regenerate and start flying training sorties again on Wednesday out of Lincoln thanks to our National Guard partners.”
In all, major construction lies ahead for Offutt: the rebuilding of the base; the $130 million replacement of the runway; and the $30 million raising of the two levees nearest the base. Had the 2-foot levee elevation already been in place, Offutt likely would have fared considerably better than it did this month, said John Winkler, general manager of the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District.
StratCom, meanwhile, will move into its new, $1.3 billion headquarters by the end of this year, freeing up space for the 55th Wing. Floodwaters stopped short of reaching StratCom’s current hilltop headquarters.
Offutt has faced a daunting emergency this month and come through, thanks to its professionalism and determination. Now comes the rebuilding, bolstered by the Air Force’s commitment and the community’s support.