Spooked by last year's historic flooding along the Missouri River, cities in the Omaha area have plenty of reason to like the emergency fortifications made to their levees.
More than $9 million in hastily placed seepage berms helped repulse water that tried to force the river through weak spots in metropolitan-area levees.
Now the question is what to do with the berms.
Typically such emergency measures must be torn out after disasters, but local and federal officials are working to keep the berms in place, said Kim Thomas, chief of emergency management for the Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She said the berms proved their worth during the flood.
But the solution isn't as simple as it sounds.
First the corps must analyze each berm to figure out if it has enough structural integrity to remain in place, Thomas said. The corps is doing that now in Douglas, Sarpy and Pottawattamie Counties at a cost of $510,000. Results are expected this summer.
"More than likely all those seepage berms will need to be left in," Thomas said.
The corps has a vested interest in keeping the seepage berms in place because successive years of flooding make clear that they are needed, said Jud Kneuvean, chief of emergency management for the corps in the Kansas City, Mo., area. In years past, the corps simply repaired levees to pre-flood condition. Now officials are moving toward making the levees more robust.
Most of the seepage berm work was concentrated in the Omaha area and northwest Missouri.
In the Omaha and Kansas City corps districts combined, about $12 million was spent last summer on the berms. Of that, $8.7 million was spent by the corps in the Omaha metro area, $3.2 million by the corps in northwest Missouri and about $560,000 by the City of Omaha.
But there's a financial twist in Omaha.
The city will get reimbursed by the federal government only if the berms it built are torn out.
Local governments are eligible for state and Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars for temporary protections erected in the middle of a disaster. Under federal rules, neither FEMA nor the corps reimburses cities for city-funded improvements made permanent, said Thomas and regional FEMA spokeswoman Amanda Bicknell.
So if the Omaha-funded berms are robust enough to remain in place, as the city and corps want, Omaha will pick up the full cost of its sand berms. It also might end up absorbing the $500,000 it spent to surface the top of its northern levee with chipped asphalt.
Omaha officials say they understand FEMA's limitations.
"During the flood fight, we needed them," said Gordon Andersen, chief of operations for Omaha's flood fight. "These were put in under the assumption they would be temporary. We realized upfront if we didn't remove them, we wouldn't be reimbursed.
"As we continue to evaluate the levees, it may be better to leave them in."
Aida Amoura, spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Suttle's office, said the city wouldn't dare pull out the berms to get a FEMA subsidy.
"The long-term savings and the long-term protections will be a much bigger win" for the city than what Omaha would get from federal aid, Amoura said.
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