Omaha Scrambles To Keep Its Airport Afloat

As the Missouri River continues to grow due to releases of water from reservoirs in the Dakotas, Omaha, Nebraska's metropolitan airport is scrambling to protect its property from flood water. Sandbagging and continuous monitoring of the levee system are underway to protect Eppley Airfield. But will it be enough to keep the Missouri River — which is expected to rise another two feet in Omaha and remain flooded through August — away from the airport?

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To Omaha now, where the Missouri River is higher than it's been in more than half a century. The river is four feet above flood stage. A levee is protecting downtown.

But as Katie Knapp Schubert reports, from member station KIOS in Omaha, the city's airport is scrambling to avoid ending up under water.

KATIE KNAPP SCHUBERT: Driving to Eppley Airfield on this morning, there's new scenery to see, standing water in the fields next to the road connecting downtown with the airport. Utility boxes are sandbagged. Pumps are working to remove water from areas around the airport. Signs direct volunteers to a community sandbagging effort at a city park. And a lake near the airport is threatening to spill over its banks.

But inside the airport, travelers still take their shoes off, have their I.D.'s checked and go through the body scanner.

Unidentified Man: Containers must be placed in a single pour-size, clear, plastic zip-top bag. Your zip-top bag must be removed.

SCHUBERT: And that's exactly how Omaha Airport Authority Executive Director Steve Coufal wants it.

Mr. STEVE COUFAL (Executive Director, Omaha Airport Authority): From the very beginning, our objective has really been two-fold, and that's to protect our assets at Eppley Airfield. And then second, to maintain air operations. And currently air service is operating normally at Eppley and there have been no interruptions associated with the flood.

SCHUBERT: About 90 flights depart here every day. Last year, more than four million passengers passed through these terminals. The Missouri River borders this airport on three sides and the river is rising. Omaha hasn't seen such a significant flood threat since 1952. A 13-mile long, 42-foot high levee now protects the airport.

Still, Coufal says contractors are working day and night to keep the water out.

Mr. COUFAL: We've bagged areas knowing that when the ground is saturated, if there would be a heavy rainfall, there could be some temporary flash flooding. And what those will do is protect key assets, such as our concourse and terminal, until such time as the pumps could get caught back up during a heavy rain.

SCHUBERT: Eppley has three pumping stations to help remove standing water. A sand boil, a weak spot in the levee, developed a couple of days ago. One hundred thousand sandbags are protecting the airport's critical infrastructure.

If the levee protecting the airport was breached, a flood would be devastating to air travel throughout this region, according to David Byers. He's an associate professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha's Aviation Institute.

Dr. DAVID BYERS (Aviation Institute, University of Nebraska, Omaha): Let me put it this way: Eppley, from the latest figures that I have, is the 63rd busiest airport in the country in terms of numbers of passengers. Certainly, the interruption of air service in and out of the area would be very significant to the community.

SCHUBERT: And getting to another airport wouldn't be easy. Portions of Interstate 29 are closed. That makes the three-hour trip to the Kansas City airport more difficult. Once the river crests in Omaha, it'll stay unusually high into August, putting significant pressure on the levees here. For now, the sights of sandbags, pumps, and high water will be the norm for most of the summer.

For NPR news, I'm Katie Knapp Schubert in Omaha.

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