North Central Region Wings Respond to Mass Flooding
When floodwaters strike, as with hurricanes Katrina, Maria or Sandy, or in the midwestern deluge this March on the Platte River, there’s that first gut reaction:
Water. So much water.
“The initial emotional sort of response (is) to how much was under water,” said Capt. Jason Ferguson of the Nebraska Wing's Omaha Composite Squadron. “That is what comes to mind. It’s hard to imagine that this happened. It’s never happened before, so you’re witnessing something for the first time, and you’re trying to reconcile what’s happening and how many people are impacted and who unfortunately may never recover.”
In time, though, that initial response washes away, thanks largely to the goodness of people, from Ferguson’s Civil Air Patrol comrades to everyday Nebraskans, many who suffered loss themselves because of melting snow and ice and a “bomb cyclone” that bloated rivers and caused death and destruction.
Here’s a glimpse of some of the activities of the seven CAP wings in the region.
Despite flooding of some of its grass airstrips and facilities, the Minnesota Wing stepped up to train personnel in neighboring Wisconsin to allow members of the Wisconsin Wing to respond to flooding.
Iowa Wing pilots flew some 10 days at the request of state and federal agencies, collecting aerial photos of Missouri River from Sioux City to the border. The South Dakota Wing assisted in the effort. Iowa Wing aircrews also gathered flooding images on the Mississippi River near the beleaguered city of Davenport. The Illinois Wing also teamed with the Iowa Wing to gather data on flooding around Moline, Illinois. The Quad Cities, Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and, in Illinois, Moline and Rock Island areas are still being battered by Mississippi River flooding.
The Missouri Wing went to work in late March, taking some 850 photos of flood damage around St. Joseph and Parkville and into Kansas. The Show Me State wing also assisted the Illinois Wing by providing ground and communications mission support.
The Kansas Wing has gathered images of flooding and levee breaches on the Missouri River around Atchison, Leavenworth and Doniphan County.
The North Dakota Wing flew missions at the request of the state’s emergency management agency beginning in mid-March, gathering images of flooding and ice jams on the Missouri River from Bismarck, the state capital, to Beaver Creek. The wing also gathered data from flooding in McKenzie County, on the James River from Adrian to the state line, on the Cheyenne and Maple rivers and on the Red River from Fargo to the Canadian border. The wing gathered some 2,300 aerial images of the devastation.
The South Dakota Wing began flying in early March at the request of state emergency management officials, tagging photos in western South Dakota on the Cheyenne River. The wing also maintained a constant presence at the state’s emergency operations center, taking part in briefings and in planning. In addition, wing aircrews took hundreds of photos of flooding at the request of the Iowa Department of Homeland Security from Sioux City, Iowa, to Omaha, Nebraska. Cadets and senior members coordinated missions in Sioux Falls and in the Black Hills. April sorties gathered about 1,000 images of power grid damage. And a ground team filled sandbags around Sioux Falls.
In Nebraska, flooding drenched three-quarters of the state. One-third of the state’s roads are believed to be damaged or under water, cutting off some communities. Numerous levees have been breached. The Elkhorn, Platte and Missouri rivers were the biggest culprits. The Nebraska Wing performed 20 ground sorties totaling some 30 hours in the field, helping vehicle escorts, offering shelter support and delivering supplies as well as helping in local communities. Aircews also gathered aerial photography of flooding and levee damage for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the wing assisted in missing persons searches.
The Nebraska Wing also took part in a new technology chapter for CAP when small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) took to the skies around Fremont as part of the organization’s response. The basketball-to-medicine-ball-sized drones will play a larger part in the future in aerial photographic damage assessment and search and rescue.
Property damage in the affected areas is estimated in the billions of dollars. In hardest-hit Nebraska, 75 percent of the state requested emergency aid in the flooding’s wake.
The angry floodwaters surrounded Fremont Municipal Airport but never reached its heart. As a result, the airport remained open day and night, allowing a steady stream aircraft to deliver much-needed supplies and to offer devastated locals a way out of the disaster.
“That Fremont airport is a small airport. But it turned into the JFK of Nebraska for several days,” Ferguson said. “There were people volunteering their time and their airplanes to fly into that airport because the airport never got flooded. All around it did, but the airport never closed, and people were able to get there and get their planes in there and fly people out.
"It was amazing to me to see Nebraskans respond that way.”
Fremont is a city of just over 26,000. The first transcontinental rail and telegraph lines and highway passed through or near there. And like most towns in the heart of America, the generations-old spirit of neighbor helping neighbor burns brightly.
The same is true for CAP's North Central Region. In a natural disaster, geographic boundaries seem to melt away, and political differences cease. If the rising waters of the Platte have a silver living, it’s that the flood brought people together.
Col. Regena Aye, North Central Region commander, recounted the work of CAP wings across the Midwest, some 4,300 members strong.
“I do think (sUAS) is coming into its own and it will be requested a lot in the future,” Aye said. “It’s going to bring a new capability to our ground teams.”
She stands amazed at CAP volunteers' tireless work and endless hours devoted to accomplishing the mission. It’s a commitment people in this part of America have known and understood for generations.
“They’re so very dedicated,” Aye said. “One of the things I often say when I talk about our volunteers is, ‘We’re the Heartland, and they put the heart in the Heartland.'
"They’re just intrepid. They’ll go even when the disaster occurs in their own backyard. They’ll help their neighbors and everyone else. It’s always impressive, the level of dedication they have," she said.
Ferguson, a Nebraskan and sUAS pilot, described it simply but powerfully — fitting for the Midwest.
“It’s quite amazing, isn’t it?”