Bill Randby stood in front of a green screen, his sleeves rolled up as he pointed to the intersection of 50th Street and Saddle Creek Road. It was pouring rain in early August 2021, and the KETV meteorologist knew in a matter of minutes it would be underwater.
“I’ve seen more flooding in the last 10 years than I did in the first 20 years that I was here,” said Randby, who started covering Omaha’s weather 30 years ago.
At O’Leaver’s Pub, Ian Aeillo worked behind the counter in 2016 when someone walked in, telling everyone to move their cars as floodwater approached the bar. By the time Aeillo got to his house around the corner, wading through waist deep water, his guitars, music equipment and furniture were submerged.
“I remember thinking, ‘Everything I own is now waterlogged,’” Aeillo said.
Saddle Creek Road, specifically south of Dodge Street, has long been identified as a flooding hazard: newspaper articles from more than a half-century ago describe floods overcoming buses and studies from the past 20 years recommended expanding sewer systems or moving the road entirely.
Jim Theiler, assistant director of environmental services, said the pricetag to fix Saddle Creek is about $250 million, though he doesn’t have a “good recollection of what all was included in that cost.” However, decades-old studies of sewers, road construction and other projects city officials sent to The Reader have combined figures of about $300 million. That’s unjustifiable, he said.
“We see very little actual reported damages to property from flooding on Saddle Creek,” Theiler said. “A vast majority of flooding is confined to the street, very little escapes the public right of way and onto [private] property.”
But doing nothing has a cost too. Dingman’s Collision Center saw their shop doors bow in and cars swept away in last year’s floods. Tres Johnson of (drips) botanical elements plant shop lost nearly his entire inventory.
“It’s a dangerous area,” he said. “…But it’s just kind of a fact of life down here.”
The History and the Sewers
After a storm, mud and water seep through the basement door of Dingman’s Collision Center at 50th and Saddle Creek. It takes days for the overflow to subside, said repair process manager Dan Brake. The basement is a dark, rock and mud-floored space under the shop where rushing water flows — the last remains of a creek.
Before there was a road cutting diagonally through midtown, there was a small tributary. Its history traces back to pioneer legend — one historian says it got its name after a saddle fell into the trickling waters from the wagon of a man heading west for gold.
Saddle Creek first saw road construction in 1898 when the City of Omaha built a boulevard alongside it, according to the North Omaha History blog. A year later a flood covered the street. Omahans advocated for a sewer system to stymie future floods. The road reopened in 1905 and sewer construction finished two years later. In 1934, the city built the Dodge Street overpass which now has about 50,000 cars drive over it weekly.
But flooding didn’t stop. In 1948, The Omaha World Herald chronicles water running up to bus floors and washing away manhole covers along Saddle Creek Road from Hamilton to Cuming Street. In 1981, the newspaper reported upwards of three feet of water running at the intersection of Saddle Creek and Dodge.
Saddle Creek’s current sewer system is a combination of two separate systems. From Woolworth south, the original sewer built in 1927 is still in use. To the north and east the sewer was replaced in 1961, said Steve Andersen manager of Collection System and Flood Control within the Omaha Public Works department.
Andersen said those systems — 95 and 61-year-old, 12-by-12-foot reinforced concrete box systems — are “as good as the ones that we’re putting in today.”
After doing inspections and walkthroughs beneath Saddle Creek within the last two years. Andersen concluded there are no maintenance opportunities to increase sewer capacity.
At the end of the day, flooding might just be something residents and business owners have to accept.
“Do you know how to make it stop raining, Michelle?” said Omaha’s city engineer Todd Pfitzer to a reporter in August 2021 when asked if there was anything the city could have done to prevent citywide flooding. “ I don’t.”
The attitude toward Saddle Creek Road was different 20 years ago.
In 2003, Destination Midtown, “one of the largest and most proactive planning studies in the history of Omaha” outlined a plan to address the road south of Dodge Street.
One “high priority” plan proposed reconstructing the street or completely moving it to the west, replacing it with a drainage channel.
Four years later, University of Nebraska Medical Center, along with the City of Omaha, Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District and the Nebraska Department of Roads, revisited the idea and estimated costs of construction and buying property to be between $17-20 million to keep Saddle Creek Road on its existing alignment, and $21-24 million on a new alignment.
Brian Spencer, current executive director of campus development and real estate for UNMC, said that the project’s cost made UNMC take a step back.
“It wasn’t necessarily a walk away, it was a ‘We don’t own all of the property, and this would impact people whose property the university and the city didn’t own,’” Spencer said. “There were definitely some thoughts of ‘Hey, we’ve got to be good neighbors’ and can’t just blanket take everyone’s property in order to make this happen.”
As those ideas stayed on the table, development in the area only accelerated.
From 2008 to 2020, the city has incentivized $122 million worth of development in midtown, according Reader analysis of tax increment financing. Those dollars gave rise to areas like Blackstone and Midtown Crossing, integral elements of a city plan to rebuild its urban core. Just last year the city also gave UNMC $93 million for development along Saddle Creek Road over the next decade.
It adds to what was already a growing flooding concern.
“The intense level of urban development within the Saddle Creek watershed has complicated this issue,” reads the 2003 Destination Midtown report.
As far back as the ‘80s, Omaha City Council member Danny Begley, who grew up in and now represents the area, remembers flooding as a problem.
“I remember helping my friend and his family who lived at 4410 Chicago Str. bail out his flooded basement back in high school,” Begley said. Begley directed other inquiries made by The Reader to the Public Works department.
In 2006, the City of Omaha outlined five priorities to address the area’s sewers through its Saddle Creek Sewer Evaluation. The first priority was the Dodge Street Sump Area, a space under the Saddle Creek underpass that collects water and, during high rain volumes, floods. The city estimated it would cost $650,000 to fix the sump — installing high water warning signals and addressing inlet capacity, or the systems that allow water to enter storm drainage.
The second priority outlined similar problems in the William-Woolworth area with similar costs. The remaining priorities focused on the sewer system’s ability to handle fast, high-volume storms — a cost of about $270 million. None of these priority proposals outlined in the 2006 Sewer Evaluation were acted upon.
“Our basic assumption for the past few years has been that to do anything that would turn the dial on flooding related issues in Saddle Creek would have costs that we cannot justify related to the risks that we are able to quantify and the disruption that would be required…to the general public,” Theiler said.
Public works has seen very little reported damage to property from flooding and haven’t done a cost/benefit analysis on any fixes to Saddle Creek, Theiler said. According to employees, (drips) botanical elements and Dingman’s Collision Center didn’t report their damages to the city and instead relied on community members and employees to clean up the damage.
Currently the city is trying other ways to address flood risk. Along with sewer maintenance checks, they are also searching out federal funds following recent FEMA mapping that labeled Saddle Creek as a floodplain.
These federal funds, if attained, would help residents and property owners who see basement backups of combined sewage when it rains, this would pay for those basements to be filled and abandoned, Theiler said.
“The city understands that the overland flooding issues on Saddle Creek exist, from a risk management perspective, in most cases, they are nuisance issues that may slow or impede traffic, but for short durations of time,” Theiler said. “Trying to mitigate this would be very problematic, not just due to costs, but due to actual feasibility of construction and community acceptance due to the amount of disruption that would be required.”
The Future of Saddle Creek
The City of Omaha, business owners in the area and even Randby have watched the water collect on Saddle Creek Road year after year. They all know this problem won’t solve itself, and increased frequency of hard, heavy storms as a result of climate change may make it worse.
“There are more frequent [floods] now,” Randby said. “We’ve seen increased rainfall rates from thunderstorms, which a lot of climatology experts believe is attributable to global warming and the ability for the atmosphere to hold more moisture.”
For those like Aeillo the solution seems clear. He’s seen business owners scoop water from their buildings, rebuild structures damaged by torrents of storm runoff and, ultimately, deal with the creek that never really left.
“The people at O’Leaver’s, the people at Dingman’s, the people at the gas station across the street who work hard and run honest businesses don’t deserve to face those types of situations on a yearly basis,” Aeillo said.
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