An aerial view of Offutt AFB, Neb., and the surrounding areas affected by flood waters on March 16, 2019. An increase in water levels of surrounding rivers and waterways caused by record-setting snowfall over the winter in addition to a large drop in air pressure resulted in widespread flooding across the state of Nebraska. Air Force photo by TSgt. Rachelle Blake.
Offutt AFB, Neb., is beginning to analyze the damage from extensive floods that wrecked the base and surrounding region, but while dozens of buildings took on water, the base’s strategically important aircraft stayed safe.
Massive flooding hit Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota beginning Friday, killing at least three people and leaving hundreds of square miles under water. Offutt took the worst damage on its southeastern portion, where most of the flight operations buildings, hangars, and the flightline itself are located, base spokesman Ryan Hansen told Air Force Magazine.
The base was able to move nine of its aircraft away from the base—eight RC-135 Rivet Joints and one E-4B Nightwatch. Four aircraft remained—three 135s and one E-4B. Those aircraft were moved to a part of the flight line on higher ground, and are safe, Hansen said.
The buildings next to the flightline were hardest hit. The majority of the base’s aircraft hangars, maintenance facilities, the 55th Wing headquarters building, 97th Intelligence Squadron building, the 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron building, and the 55th Security Forces building were all flooded. Overall, about 30 buildings were damaged. The 55th Wing flew in a portable dam to try to protect the building holding its high-tech flight simulators, but it could not be deployed in time, Hansen said.
Airmen filled more than 235,000 sandbags and deployed more than 460 flood barriers to try to minimize the damage, but aerial photographs show much of the southeast portion of the base underwater.
The current US Strategic Command headquarters building, along with the new $1.3 billion headquarters facility set to open by the end of the year, are safe. Additionally, base housing is not in the affected area, Hansen said.
The base is starting to analyze aerial pictures, but it is too early for an accurate assessment of the damage, Hansen said. Only mission essential personnel reported to duty as Offutt’s main gate remain closed. Despite the heavy damage to the southeastern portion of the base, the rest of the base is “fine” and remains fully operational, he said.
Col. Michael Manion, commander of the 55th Wing, said on Facebook, “It is extremely clear that we face a grand challenge. The Warhawks are up to the task but it will be a steady recovery.”
The flood damage appears to be more serious than the June 2017 tornado that touched down in the same part of the base that is currently under water. That tornado damaged seven RC-135s and two E-4Bs, along with structures on the flightline.
The storm also comes as the Air Force is still determining how it will rebuild another Air Combat Command base severely damaged by a natural disaster. Most of Tyndall AFB, Fla., was destroyed when a hurricane directly hit the base in October. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told lawmakers last week it expects to need about $1 billion to start recovering the Florida base.