The home to America's prized RC-135 "Rivet Joint" strategic reconnaissance and E-4B "Nightwatch" Advanced Airborne Command Post aircraft, as well as others, and the headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), is flooding with water from a swollen Missouri River.
Offutt Air Force Base sits near Omaha, Nebraska and is considered one of the most critical installations in the U.S. Air Force's portfolio. Not only does it house extremely high-value, but low density reconnaissance and command and control aircraft—massively expensive platforms that are essential to national security—but it is also the beating heart of STRATCOM that oversees America's strategic nuclear forces. In fact, a brand new command bunker, buried underground at the base, was just opened in January—which sounds far less than ideal considering water is now nearly covering the end of the base's runway.
A conga line of RC-135s were tracked escaping the impending deluge earlier today.
The thing is that the fleet of aircraft housed at Offutt is among the oldest in the USAF's inventory and has received quite a reputation as of late for less than stellar readiness. In other words, some aircraft may not have been able to fly out. And even if most were good to go, there will almost always be a number left behind due to various circumstances—most commonly of which is being down for deep maintenance.
But still, considering the strategic operations centers that are the backbone of STRATCOM are located at the base, many of which are underground, this flood could prove to be way more harmful than the damage done to aircraft and basic infrastructure above ground. Hopefully the waters crest without that being the case and Airman have been hard at work filling tens of thousands of sandbags to help protect key areas. Also, a 740 foot long, four foot tall system of barriers was flown in from Louisiana so that a building housing the base's highly expensive flight simulators could have at least some protection from being flooded.
Offutt's commanding officer, Colonel Michael Manion, noted 15 hours ago that major damage is already being done to the base and that the rising river's edge isn't the only way water is flooding into critical areas:
"Team - 1600L/16 March update. Water is rising at a rapid rate on the SE side of the base. 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. OPPD, City of Bellevue, Sarpy County, and State of Nebraska are tremendous partners. Be careful out there - our heavy machinery is operating at full capacity. Please give them plenty of space."
Since then things have been getting worse, not better:
"Team - 2100L/16 March update: Substantial flooding on the SE portion of Offutt AFB and we expect the water to continue to rise through the late afternoon of 17 March. Over 20 buildings have been evacuated due to flooding and we expect more flooding overnight. We have had zero injuries except some tired shoulders and a few blisters. The entire Offutt team continues to demonstrate courage, tenacity, and pride as they defend the base. I saw that tenacity today as I was in the air traffic control tower when we launched aircraft to safer locations. SSgt Troy Ondrey and SSgt Richard De Leon from the 55th Operations Support Squadron Hydras were conductors in an orchestra! Despite heavy bird activity, they found a perfect opportunity to launch nine aircraft in an extremely narrow window. Listening to their professionalism as they moved aircraft on the ground, coordinated with the aircrew and airfield operations, and kept Omaha informed was priceless! So proud of these great Airmen and the entire Warhawk team! Go get’em!"
Maybe most ominous message from Colonel Manion came in the form of this aerial photo. It was taken yesterday and shows the water nearly covering the end of the runway and coming very close to the base's largest hangar that often houses E-4B aircraft:
Here is a view of the area where the water is approaching:
At the very least, any aircraft left behind can be towed to the west end of the base, away from the rising river. But the infrastructure that might be damaged by the flood could be devastating to the base, and at this time, just how far the waters will rise isn't exactly clear. According to the 55th Wing Commander's Facebook Page they are supposed to continue rising into Sunday.
The high water is a result of the confluence of heavy rainfall last week, rapid snow melt, and ice jams. The level of flooding is so severe that it is breaking records, causing huge amounts of damage, and even stranding entire communities. No rain is predicted till at least Tuesday. Hopefully, the waters will begin to recede by then.
This terrible event comes after a tornado tore across the base in June of 2017, damaging buildings and aircraft. That EF1 Tornado did around $20M in damage, but some have wondered what would become of the installation if a more powerful vortex touched down within its confines or nearby. The base is notoriously short on hangars—let along ones that could bear the brunt of a high-power tornado—leaving its high-value aircraft exposed to the elements.
After what happened at Tyndall AFB last year when Hurricane Michael devastated the installation and damaged many of the aircraft housed there, the debate about basing expensive and often finicky aircraft in disaster prone areas has been elevated dramatically. If the damage is severe to Offutt, it will likely become subject to similar controversy.
We will keep you up to date as this story progresses.
UPDATE: 2:00pm PST—
Steve Liewer of the Omaha World-Herald, who has done a lot of great writing about Offutt AFB and its mission over the years, was on the base today to view the damage. He issued a report with photos that stated in part:
"It was a lost cause. We gave up," said Tech. Sgt. Rachelle Blake, a 55th Wing spokeswoman.
By Sunday morning, one-third of the base was underwater, she said. About 60 structures have been damaged, most on the south end of the base. No one, though, has been injured.
Of the base's 200 buildings, 30 are completely inundated with as much as 8 feet of water, including the 55th Wing headquarters building, the E-4B Nightwatch hangar and the Bennie Davis Maintenance Facility. About 3,000 feet of the base's 11,700-foot runway are submerged.
"It’s devastating to the 55th Wing, devastating to the installation and the facilities," said U.S. Rep Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force officer who commanded Offutt and the 55th Wing. "They just took a punch to the gut."
The 55th Wing managed to fly out nine of the 33 reconnaissance jets based there Saturday evening, according to 55th Wing Commander Col. Michael Manion's official Facebook post. Some were flown to the Lincoln Airport, where the Nebraska Air National Guard has a base.
Five planes were still parked on the northwest taxiway and the apron Sunday morning. Blake said it's not clear yet when or whether they'll be moved. No planes have been damaged in the floods.
So a bit of a mixed bag—major damage to the eastern third of the installation, but it looks like STRATCOM headquarters is not harmed and aircraft were able to be moved. And most importantly, nobody was injured during the effort to keep some of the water at bay. But we are talking about a lot of water damage to many core areas of the base. The E-4B hangar is under water, for instance.
Make sure to read Liewer's full report here.
Here are some additional photos of the flooded areas from Twitter:
UPDATE: 2:20pm PST—
It's actually worse than I thought. Nearly the entire east apron, and the hangars support buildings that sit on and around it, are under water. Some of that water is remarkably deep. Check out the pictures from the 55th Wing Commander's Facebook page:
UPDATE: 3pm PST—
More photos from DoD showing the damage and the planes parked on the western ramp areas:
It looks like at least five planes were left at the base—four RC-135s and an E-4B. Even the fuel storage facilities and satcom array areas are under water.
UPDATE: 7:10pm PST—
You have to check out this Twitter thread showing just how horrible the flooding is in Nebraska:
Also, other military installations were impacted severely. Check out these pics of Camp Ashland:
Places like this don't get the attention that big Air Force Bases do, but it is a big loss to the Nebraska National Guard. The nation doesn't seem to be really all that aware that this is happening.
Our thoughts are with our fellow Americans going through this disaster in Nebraska.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com