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OFFUTT OVERRUN: How Airmen and
Civilians Came Together to Save the Base

By MR. MATT LIPTAK, Staff Writer

The Air Force was not spared much of Mother Nature’s flood-fury during the March natural disaster that impacted the Midwest. Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, began battling its flooding deluge on March 15 when water began creeping on to the grounds of the base, but by Sunday March 17, the water had inundated 30 percent of Offutt, and leadership limited inhabitants to mission essential personnel only.

That did not stop Airmen and civilians alike from defending the base against the unexpected influx and doing it safely. Col Michael Manion, 55th Wing Commander, documented some of the battle to save the base:

“Water is rising at a rapid rate on the SE side of the base,” he stated. “Water is entering from the river and through the storm drains. Several buildings, including the Wing Building, are inundated with water. We continue to work as rapidly as possible to improve water defenses around critical infrastructure. Team Offutt is doing an incredible job, working together, but Mother Nature is moving fast.”

Airmen fortified the base with 235,000 sandbags and 460 flood barriers, but by that Sunday, TSgt Rachelle Blake, a 55th Wing spokeswoman, told an Omaha World-Herald reporter that 30 buildings of the bases’ 200 total had already succumbed to up to 8 feet of water, and another 30 had been damaged.

While the Airmen worked hard on the ground, the commander of the 55th made sure they kept safety on their minds as a top priority. Securing and protecting resources and equipment was vital, but even that took a back seat to keeping the men and women of Offutt out of danger.

“We are requesting everyone’s patience as we work through this together,” Manion said. “Our defenders are working hard to keep everyone safe.”

Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, visited the base after the emergency had ended on March 22, and recognized the base leadership for the careful, efficient, and unified manner in which they handled the challenges of the flood.

“There were no injuries, no loss of life on this base,” Wilson said. “All the aircraft were either flown out or moved to high ground. A lot of the ground equipment was saved because they called in everybody in an all-hands effort.”

The effort was so unified that it even became a family affair. For example, the wife of an Airman had rushed to the base in the mitigation effort. Wilson recounted the Airman and his wife’s diligence to duty.

“He called his wife and said, ‘the water is coming up across the parking lot.’ She called her folks in Iowa to come stay with the kids and she went in and started taking things from peoples’ offices, trying to get them up higher to protect all of the heritage.”

The heritage of Offutt, though, is truly found not in the materials on base, but in the hearts and spirits of its people. The esprit de corp the Airmen exhibited is second to none. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Dave Goldfein indicated as much on March 27, when he visited the base to assess the damage.

“I am so proud of the members of Team Offutt who worked tirelessly for days to protect as many assets as possible,” he said. “I would be remiss if I did not also thank the local community. It is those strong partnerships that made all of this possible.”

Although the base was saved, much was lost by the end of the flood. Approxi­mately 90 structures were impacted.

“We have roughly 3,200 members displaced from their work centers and redistributed to other locations on base,” Manion said. “We lost about 1.2 million square feet of office space.”

The cost of recovery on Offutt is expected to be several hundred million dollars. The road back to full recovery may be a long one, but Wilson said Offutt Air Force Base will be made even better than it once was.

“If you could have been here one week ago, you would have seen the American spirit of resiliency alive and well,” Manion told Wilson on her visit. “When the call came out for all hands on deck to do everything we could to defend this base against the rising water, there was nothing but positive attitudes, strong backs, and strong shoulders as we fought the water, and now we are in the recovery mode and we are going to put this base back together. Every day we are getting a little bit better.”