Missouri River Flooding of 2011

Missouri River floodwaters threatened the Nebraska City Station, a coal-fired power plant located on the river, during the summer of 2011. But preventative measures allowed the plant to keep generating electricity without interrption during the sweltering summer.

For a while, the rumors were coming as fast as the water spilling out of Gavins Point dam:

  • The Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant was melting down
  • Coal-fired power plants were running out of coal, unable to be resupplied by railroads
  • The Gavins Point Dam was in danger of failing
  • College World Series games would be postponed due to flooding in downtown Omaha

In the end, none of these rumors, repeated widely by the news media, bloggers and local residents, were true. But what was true was that the Missouri River floods of 2011 severely tested Nebraska’s electric system, particularly the assets and employees of Omaha Public Power District (OPPD). Between June and August, 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released as much as 1.2 million gallons of water each second from the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River.

There was nowhere for all that extra water to go but over the river banks and onto property owners’ land. That flooding threatened three large OPPD power stations located alongside the river, as well as numerous substations and transmission and distribution lines located near the river.

During the summer of 2011, a series of aqua dams protected the Fort Calhoun nuclear power project from being flooded by the rising Missouri River. The power plant was not operating at the time of the flooding, and there was no threat of release of radioactive materials.

All told, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released trillions of gallons of water—an unprecedented amount—from the Gavins Point Dam during the summer of 2011. Heavy spring rains and the melting of an above-average snowpack put millions of acre-feet of water into an already-swollen Missouri River. The dams along the Missouri could not store all the extra water, leading to the worst flooding of the Missouri in more than a century, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The flooding threatened over $3 billion of OPPD assets, including the Fort Calhoun Station, the Nebraska City Station and the North Omaha Station, along with nearby office buildings, information technology (IT) equipment and transmission and distribution lines. Hundreds of OPPD employees raced against time and the Missouri River to protect these assets and ensure that customers continued to receive electricity during a sweltering Nebraska summer.

“The Flood of 2011 will go down in our history books as one of the worst we’ve ever had,” said Gary Gates, OPPD’s president and chief executive officer. “The floodwaters could have caused serious damage to our equipment and could have destroyed millions of dollars in assets — but they didn’t. Thanks to the hard work of so many, we successfully battled the Missouri River Flood of 2011.”

This inflatable aqua berm surronded and protected the Fort Calhoun Station from the Missouri River floods of 2011.

The extraordinary effort of OPPD employees showed what a committed team can do during historically adverse conditions, Gates noted. “During the summer of 2011, we were at war with the Missouri River,” he said. “We had people doing physical activity, and people on the front lines making sacrifices. We had a supply group and a strategy group, and others were coordinating with cities, counties, customers and other entities.”

“Mo Doghman, an OPPD vice president, added: “Our employees came together to successfully protect OPPD’s assets and keep electricity flowing to its customers.” The fact that everyone pulled together during the crisis brought out the best in people, he said: “I didn’t hear anyone say, ‘It’s not my job’. Everyone did what they could to help. We had workers putting in 16-hour days for 16 days straight.”

As the Missouri River floodwaters rose during the summer of 2011, a series of raised walkways at the Fort Calhoun Station allowed employees to move across the plant's flooded grounds. This walkway was built over the employee parking lot.

Here is a summary of the OPPD generating stations that were affected by the Missouri River flooding:

  • The Fort Calhoun Station (FCS) had been shut down for refueling prior to the Missouri River flooding. As the Missouri River rose, employees and contractors built a wall around the 479-megawatt (MW) nuclear plant composed of sandbags and inflatable berms. The plant’s computer servers were successfully relocated to an off-site location to ensure there was no interruption in monitoring the plant. The flooding delayed by several months the plant’s normal 180-day refueling shutdown; FCS is expected to begin generating electricity in 2012. .
  • Nebraska City Station: At Nebraska City Station, the existing levee separating the plant from the Missouri River was strengthened and a backup levee was built from dirt and sandbags. Although the river rose several feet during the flooding, the most significant challenge at NCS was raising two miles of railroad tracks by an average of three feet to ensure coal shipments to the plant were not interrupted. Special equipment and more than 88,000 tons of rock were needed to ensure that coal shipments on the Union Pacific railway continued during the summer.
  • North Omaha Station: This 638-MW power plant was largely spared by the flooding of 2011 but workers at NOS had to place sandbags along the access road and at the Emergency Operations Facility building.  The plant did have a few interruptions with coal shipments due to flooding in a nearby rail yard. But by and large, operations at NOS were not affected.

While the flooding affected all three power plants, the situation at the Fort Calhoun Station grabbed the most attention because floodwaters rose to such levels that its well-fortified structures looked like islands from the air. In fact, the amount of flooding experienced at FCS was unprecedented in the U.S. nuclear power industry. Because the flooding occurred less than three months after the partial meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant, FCS attracted widespread local, national and international media coverage as well as site visits from the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and countless others.