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Water Is Power

The power of water is often misunderstood and underappreciated until its destruction is seen in action. Unfortunately, the Omaha metro and surrounding areas recently got a stark reminder, when a rare winter storm, a “bomb cyclone” of historic proportions hit Nebraska and surrounding states – unleashing blizzard conditions in the western part of the state and three inches of rain in eastern Nebraska. The cyclone triggered the “perfect storm” of heavy rains, frozen ground, and snowmelt, resulting in the historic flood of March 2019.

Flood of March 2019

The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District manages the most highly populated and flood-prone watershed basin in the state, the Papillion Creek Watershed. The first detailed account of extreme flooding in the Papillion Creek Watershed took place in 1881, followed by flood events in 1952, 1964, 2010, 2011, 2015, and the Flood of 2019. 

The Papillion Creek Watershed, encompassed by a third of the Missouri River and bordered by the Elkhorn and Platte rivers, recorded unprecedented water levels from all three rivers during the March flood. 

Levees were overtopped and breaches occurred due to no dams or robust levee systems to help control the Platte and Elkhorn. (Discussions regarding building a dam along the Platte River date back to the early 1900s, with several failed proposals and studies throughout the decades.)

Unprecedented Damage

The March 2019 flood severely damaged the Missouri River Levee System that protects Offutt Air Force Base, resulting in damages estimated to exceed $1 billion. The nearby Papillion Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and levee system sustained more than $45 million in damage. 

The flood occurred just weeks before the Papio NRD was to begin federally mandated upgrades to the levees. Fortunately, six months later, the Papio NRD, in cooperation and coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), started the levee construction. The project is estimated to be completed by 2021. (The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is responsible for managing the Missouri River and the Papio NRD operates and maintains over 16 miles of levees along the Missouri River and Papillion Creek.)

In 1964, the story was much different. The flood of 1964 took seven lives and left an underprepared Omaha metro in devastation.

1964 flood damage and debris at top of the 84th Street Bridge in Papillion.

On June 16th and 17th, 1964, seven people lost their lives and millions of dollars in personal property losses occurred. Ninety-five trailer homes were swept more than a half mile downstream by torrential flooding in the Millard area.

During that storm, eight inches of rain falling for three hours on Hell Creek flowing down from Boys Town into the West Branch Papio Creek created a roaring torrent of water 50 feet wide with waves five feet high. In its wake, houses were moved off their foundations and garages were destroyed.

1964 flood-damaged cars and trucks at former Fishko Chevy dealership in Papillion.

After the flood of 1964, the Papio NRD went to work – building dams and dynamic flood mitigation systems throughout the District to reduce the risk of flooding and mitigate the considerable loss of life and property during future flood events. 
In the Papillion area, levee and channel improvement projects certainly proved themselves, especially in 2019. But further protection is just around the corner, with two new flood control reservoirs in Sarpy County scheduled to be completed in 2020. 
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