Omaha, Neb. – Rockport. Hamburg. Council Bluffs.
Names on a map.
In the summer of 2011, though, they were so much more: Communities fighting a rising tide of water that threatened to wash away everything. In some places, levees held and a crisis was averted. In other places, the levees failed and lives were disrupted.
But throughout the Missouri River Basin, there were many flood control structures stressed or broken that held little chance of functioning properly even as the 2012 runoff season approached. Tensions in these and similar towns and cities ran high.
Now those communities can take comfort in knowing that much of the flood risk reduction in the basin has been restored. The five breaches along Missouri River Levee Units L575 and L550 are closed. Several critically damaged segments of levee from Omaha and Council Bluffs south to just below the Missouri state line are restored and ready to handle high water if the mild winter worsens.
"We topped out the lower breach on Missouri River Levee Unit L575 on Tuesday morning," said Bret Budd, the chief of the Omaha District Systems Restoration Team. "It was the last of the five breaches we’ve completed in the past month-and-a-half. The contractor worked 24-hour shifts to ensure that we completed the work prior to March 1."
March 1 is the typical start of the runoff season for the year, when the first significant amounts of water from melting plains snowpack enters the Missouri River. It is a date fraught with meaning for businesses, residents, farmers and advocacy groups like Responsible River Management.
"We sat down with the people of the Basin – we sat down with Responsible River Management and the sponsors, and we put this March 1 date on the calendar," said Col. Bob Ruch, the commander of the Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "And working with them, we’ve met that date."
Between L575 near Percival and Hamburg, Iowa, and L550 near Watson and Rockport, Mo., contractors placed 2.7 million cubic yards of material in 86 calendar days. That’s an average of 31,000 cubic yards of material a day.
"There’s still a lot of work to go on, but we needed to get these breaches filled to the initial height with five feet of cohesive material on the front of the levee and two feet on the back," Col. Ruch said. "So we are ready for high water."
That announcement could come none-too-soon for area farmers, landowners and businesses.
"Without getting these breaches closed, absolutely nothing can move forward – our commerce or getting back in our houses, getting our lifestyle back," said Leo Ettleman, the chairman of Responsible River Management. "Going on, moving forward – it all starts with getting the levees back."
Col. Ruch praised the efforts of groups like Responsible River Management as well as local sponsors who worked with the Omaha District, helping on real estate issues and providing crucial input into the local needs.
"We’re working with some great people down here with Responsible River Management and the levee sponsors, themselves," Col. Ruch said. "And they’ve been instrumental in getting the land we need to get these repairs done and the proper real estate so we can do the construction."
The contract for Missouri River Levee Unit L550 and L575 was awarded to Weston Solutions, Inc. While the company is based out Philadelphia, it wasted no time in reaching out locally for subcontractors.
"They’ve hired a lot of local equipment. There’s even local farmers running some of the equipment, hauling materials with their tractors," Col. Ruch said. "It’s been a team effort. The people that are going to live behind these levees and the folks that are farming behind these levees are really invested in doing this work correctly."
For their part, Ettleman said farmers and Responsible River Management appreciated taking an active part in the process of levee restoration.
"Having them listen to our concerns, they’ve been very receptive to our concerns and taken that to heart," he said. "And they’re reached out to us just as we reached out to them. So it’s worked out well."
The work of restoring flood control structures in the Public Law 84-99 program along the Missouri River Basin to their pre-flood status is far from done. What’s been accomplished to date represents those projects that were deemed the highest risk to life safety.
The Corps focused its energy and resources on repairs and temporary fixes that could be completed in a tight timeframe. Those efforts were aided by decidedly mild weather.
"God’s blessed us with some great weather this winter to do construction. Otherwise, we really would have had a bigger challenge than we did to meet this March 1 date," Col. Ruch said. "We’ve been very fortunate. I don’t think we’ve lost three days to weather this winter. And that’s not normal for this time of year."
With the presidential signature arriving on the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act on Dec. 23, the Omaha District would find the funding for an estimated $280 million in repairs on 18 levee repair projects. Another $234 million would go to the some 100 projects at mainstems and related flood control structures and projects along the Missouri River. To implement the massive contracting actions required throughout the basin and provide the necessary safety and quality oversight on these projects, Col. Ruch formed a special execution cell, the Omaha District Systems Restoration Team.
"We brought all the program managers, project managers into one section," Col. Ruch said. "This is really a $500 million effort up and down the river. That’s a large program for any organization to run. So we brought in the right overhead to make sure that all the things are sequenced correctly and that we don’t miss anything."
"We received engineers and support from seven different districts in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stretching from Alaska to New England to Kansas City and to the mouth of the Missouri River at St. Louis," Budd said.
With those critical repairs completed, efforts now turn to geotechnical investigations and execution on permanent solutions to restore the level of flood risk reduction in the basin. The district is drawing on resources from Mobile, Ala.; Baltimore and Savannah; including both mobile drill rigs and operators.
"When we’re resourced correctly, we meet our deadlines," Ruch said.