Air National Guard Supports Missouri Flood Efforts
By Maj. Kevin Hynes, JFHQ - Nebraska
/ Published July 22, 2011
Omaha, Neb. -- As a good portion of the sporting world's eyes were focused on the college baseball action at Omaha's sparkling new $128 million TD Ameritrade Park, members of the Nebraska Air National Guard's eyes were focused squarely on the action taking place just north and south of this year's College World Series.
Beginning on June 17, just a day before the start of this year's college baseball championship tournament, 18 Nebraska Air Guardsmen were called to state active duty to assist Omaha and Douglas County emergency management officials keep an eye on 13 miles of Missouri River levees as historic flooding threatened to cause massive problems for Nebraska's largest city.
According to Master Sgt. Carl Oestmann, senior noncommissioned officer for the Omaha mission, the Guardsmen were assigned to help keep a constant eye on the levees for any signs of deterioration as weeks of flooding began to put unprecedented pressure on the river embankments.
"We really are what I would consider the early warning system," said Oestmann as he and Capt. Greg Goodwater, officer in charge, maneuvered their pick-up through the College World Series traffic around TD Ameritrade during a visit to their Guardsmen operating north of downtown. "We are reporting observations that we see from one pass to the next and then reporting that to the appropriate personnel so that they have the time they need to address a specific situation."
According to Goodwater, his Guardsmen were broken down into three shifts of two teams. Equipped with a four-wheel-drive all terrain vehicle, one team conducts a foot and vehicle patrol of the earthen levee south of downtown Omaha while the second conducts a similar patrol of the earthen levee north of downtown.
The team was not directly inspecting levees in the downtown area itself because of the presence of concrete embankments, which aren't as susceptible to failure.
All together, Goodwater said, his teams were responsible for keeping their eyes focused on 13 miles of levee beginning north of Omaha around the critical area of Eppley Airfield and ending near the also critical Omaha waste water treatment plant.
"It doesn't sound like that much, but when you're patrolling 13 miles of levee at five miles per hour, getting off, walking, checking areas, noticing changes, inspecting that change for seepage or a blister or a burrow, staying in contact with authorities and staying put until they work it... it takes times."
Changing weather and river conditions also are constant challenges, as is dealing with man-made ones as well, such as pipes moving water over the levees and back into the river.
It's a huge mission, he added, as well as one the Guardsmen are happy to take on.
"Right now morale is high," he said. "They're having a lot of fun. It's something completely different than any of them have ever done."
"They understand how important our role is, which is to monitor the levee and detect any type of deterioration so that they can get people out to fix it."
Take Master Sgt. Roscoe Moore, for example. A meteorologist from the Offutt Air Force Base's 170th Operations Support Squadron, Moore had spent much of his active duty and recent Guard career keeping his eyes on the weather. On June 21 he was getting an opportunity to see the after effects of Mother Nature as a member of the Omaha levee monitoring contingent.
He said he was having the time of his life.
"I saw this as a really good opportunity to support the state and do National Guard-type of work," said Moore as he drove his four-person ATV along the levee near Omaha's Freedom Park, which was now rapidly filling with water and causing the park's two historic U.S. Navy vessels to once again float on what almost appeared to be the high seas.
According to Moore, the mission is really quite simple. Twice a day during his eight-hour shift, he and Airman 1st Class Kyle Buchman of the Lincoln-based 155th Air Refueling Wing headquarters, drive down the levee looking for any signs of leakage or sloughing of the levees. They also routinely step out onto the "dry" side of the levee to look for the presence of sand boils - newly erupting, volcano-like structures caused by the underground seepage dragging sediment from the levees with it - as well as signs of burrowing by animals displaced by the rising flood waters.
"It would seem monotonous every day just driving back and forth, but you're constantly looking for something new," Moore said. "Especially on the north side... things change every day."
In order to maintain safety, both Moore and other levee monitors wear life vests when working on the levee. They're also constantly in contact with the Air Guard's shift supervisor as well as Omaha Police Department personnel.
Moore said that he's pretty confident that he's prepared in the event that something would happened on the levees.
"I really don't feel nervous being out here," he said, "especially with all of the safety gear that they've given us."
Most importantly, Moore said he feels proud to be involved in a mission that's so important.
"We need to protect (Omaha citizens) and protect the resources and protect commerce," said Moore.
Others echoed his thoughts.
"I think it's important to help out the community," said Bachman. "On the levee, it's definitely a learning experience because I didn't know much about levees when I went into this. It's attention to detail. You look for small little details."
Bachman said he's particularly happy to be helping out during a time of intense need.
"I just got back from (technical) school and to have this opportunity right of the bat... I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Someday I'll deploy and I think this is just a great start to a career," he added. "And meeting all these different people from the unit, it's really a good experience."