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Omaha storm recovery far from over; why some areas were hit so hard

Posted at 6:34 PM, Aug 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-10 22:51:00-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — It has been three days since a storm flooded downtown Omaha, but recovery is far from over.

Omaha Public Works has been busy cleaning up the streets and fixing sewer pipes ever since. The worst damage happened in low-lying, downtown Omaha.

“It was kind of a perfect storm for us if you look at the rainfall areas and measurements,” City Engineer Todd Pfitzer said. “We got the most rain in the part of town that is the most susceptible.”

The older sewage system just couldn’t keep up.

“We estimated it was a 100–200-year storm event, which clearly our system is not designed to handle, no system really is,” Pfitzer said. “So, when that happens to your weak points, your points that may be due for maintenance or sometimes have a crack that no one even knows about yet. It finds those weak spots and that’s where your failures occur.”

Several failures took place in the area. The biggest pipe that went down was on Harney Street.

On Tuesday, crews were repairing pipes that failed while checking other pipes downtown to see what kind of shape they are in.

Combination sewer pipes take both sanitary sewage and stormwater and they need to be replaced. East Omaha is one of the locations that haven't done this yet.

“The city is actively working on it. Every year they update more and more sewers,” University of Nebraska Professor Dr. George Hunt said. “They only have a certain amount of money, you know?”

The amount of money it would take to completely replace the sewer system is in the billions — and out of the question.

“You’re talking huge amounts of money, and there’s always a bigger storm,” Hunt said.

“It's like, you don't design a parking lot just for Black Friday, because if you do you have half of that parking lot sitting empty for the rest of the year,” Pfitzer said. “Once in a while, you have an event that exceeds your capabilities."

The highest rate of rainfall hit the downtown area — bringing in debris and taking parts of the streets with it.

The water even caved in the retaining wall on 20th and Woolworth.

The city said if the hardest rainfall would’ve hit west Omaha instead, the amount of damage wouldn’t have been as severe.

“East Omaha is an older system, there’s still some combined sewers in east Omaha, it’s more hilly,” Pfitzer said.

“Part of the problem downtown is that it’s very impervious. There’s more area paved. The more paved an area is, the more runoff you’re going to have,” Hunt said. “If it happened out in west Omaha, you’d have a lot more opportunity for infiltration...water just soaking into the ground.”

Pfitzer said while the damage from the two big storms we have had recently in Omaha has been devastating, he is very thankful that no lives were lost.

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