Commentary

Flooding creates CWS challenges

Omaha deals with water near TD Ameritrade Park, site of the College World Series

Updated: June 17, 2011, 9:39 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- The sun lowered in a pastel-blue sky on the plains Wednesday night, and the familiarity of mid-June took hold. LSU fans gathered for beers and yarns on patios; workers scurried with kegs and last-minute final touches. It's College World Series time, the best two weeks of the year in Omaha, and this is a particularly prideful moment because the town is unveiling a new $131 million ballpark.

Former President George W. Bush will throw out the first pitch Saturday. A handful of baseball-savvy celebs will no doubt make their way to this growing Midwestern town that produced the Reuben sandwich, the band 311 and the longest-running championship site in the history of the NCAA.

[+] EnlargeOmaha flooding
Warren AP Photo/Nati HarnikStatues of workers of various trades, part of the Monument for Labor by Matthew J. Placzek, stand in the rising waters of the Missouri River.

And a few blocks away from the festivities, soldiers in camouflage will monitor a churning river, hoping to stave off another historical event. This is a town on the edge of a flood crisis, though you wouldn't know it in most spots, just the spots that happen to surround the new yard.

The Missouri River is 4.2 feet above flood stage and has yet to crest. Gawkers gather by the swollen riverfront, snapping pictures as a statue disappears into the mucky water. Up the road, in the parking lot of the old Civic Auditorium, volunteers fill sandbags as cars rumble above on Interstate 480.

Locals are calling it a flood that happens about once every 100 years, and long patches of interstate leading into Omaha have been shut down indefinitely. Just outside the city, families are losing homes, farms and livelihoods. Inside, the City of Omaha is methodically doing what it has for the past six decades: hustling to be one of the NCAA's most hospitable hosts.

One of the first teams to arrive Wednesday afternoon was the University of California, and a school official said the Golden Bears had no travel glitches and very few conversations about the floods. They're here to play baseball, and NCAA officials say the games are expected to go on as scheduled.

But deep down, underneath the smiles and handshakes, only two things are certain. That the river is as high as it's been since 1952, and that nobody really knows what to expect.

"This is the biggest event of the year," Les Bruning, a local artist, said as he stood in the shadow of TD Ameritrade Park on Wednesday.

"Everybody is kind of on edge. Nobody really knows what's going to happen."

From the mayor's office

The mayor of Omaha is a civil engineer. He has withstood budget slashes and a bitter recall election that nearly unseated him from his job this past winter. Jim Suttle does not panic. He has a saying he uses at least two times on Wednesday. You plan the work and work the plan.

He is late for a 1 o'clock meeting because of a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new ballpark and a meeting with the mayor of neighboring Council Bluffs, Iowa, about the river. The mayors had lunch together, Suttle's receptionist said, and like to yak sometimes.

He arrives in his office and takes a seat at the head of a long, wooden table, and several staffers follow a few minutes later. He seems tired and somewhat annoyed by all the questions, rumors and doomsday scenarios. But he's putting in long hours these days and is no doubt fatigued from the weeks of wall-to-wall flood coverage by the local media.

Every day, a member of Suttle's staff holds a morning briefing, just to keep them up to speed. Today, there are two rumors that have Suttle on edge. One is that the airport is about to close, and the other that Gavins Point Dam, which is on the Nebraska-South Dakota border, has a crack in it. Neither one is true, he says.

"Please don't judge us by what's going on upriver or by what's going on downriver," Suttle said. "Upriver, we've got residential areas flooded out; we've got entire towns being flooded out. But that is not happening here. Because we have the levee. They built this levee at 42 feet.

"We're not talking about breaches. Please don't use that word. This is not Hamburg, Iowa."

[+] EnlargeLes Bruning
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comLes Bruning, an Omaha artist, says the stench from a sewer backup near TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha has made for a few unpleasant workdays.

But there are genuine concerns. One of the precious few parking lots near the ballpark flooded the other day because of a broken pipe. Earlier in the week, a strong odor from a backed-up sewer wafted around a street just a block away from the park.

Bruning says the smell was so foul that a number of artists working in a nearby studio couldn't stand it, and packed up their things and went home.

The gray, murky water finally stopped flowing Wednesday morning, Bruning said.

"It smelled like sewer," he said. "OK, it smelled like s---. Oh, the hotel people are just going nuts. It's their biggest week of the year, this is it, and then they've got sewage in the street.

"It's not good. I'm not worried about the river. But if we have a big rain, there's no place for the water to go."

Suttle said the city's biggest concern is a downpour of more than 2 inches of rain. But he said they've added dozens of pumps that could quickly remove the water from low-lying areas downtown.

The Missouri River Flood of 2011 started hundreds of miles away, well out of Suttle's jurisdiction. Massive amounts of snow fell on the Rockies, then Montana was hit with record rains. The water upstream had to go somewhere and is being released from Gavins Point Dam. The results of the biggest release -- 150,000 cubic feet of water per second -- probably will be known by this weekend.

"We are ahead of this problem and ahead of this game," Suttle said. "When people come to the College World Series … They're going to come to a dry city and they're going to come to a great game. They're going to be able to do all the things they did last year.

"They might see pockets of water here or there, but that's just because those are low places where it's collecting and bubbling."

With the sandbaggers

Five college students show up in the parking lot at Levi Carter Park on Wednesday night, just after 5. They come with shovels to help fill sandbags for three hours. They say God has brought them here to help others.

[+] Enlargesandbag
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comCollege students who volunteered to help fill sandbags, from L to R, Drew Swartz, Jeff Destache, Jason Case, Matt O'Malley, Thomas Dzuris.

Problem is, the station is full. There are too many volunteers. So they head to another site downtown, a few blocks from the stadium.

"For some people, this may be the only opportunity they get to experience the College World Series," said Drew Swartz, a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "It would be really sad if the one year they get to see it they can't because of a flood."

The volunteers arrive in four-hour shifts. They are fast and disciplined. Most of them are young. An ice cream truck arrives after 7 o'clock at the downtown site, and only one person stops to wolf down a treat. They sing camp songs together, perfect strangers, and give high-fives when all the sand is gone. Their only reward is some warm tap water.

A woman named Anne says she's here to protect her parking spot at the College World Series. She heard about the flooded lot and has season tickets. There's a long-haired construction worker shoveling sand, plus a suave off-duty local TV anchor and a 53-year-old man who left his insurance job early and brought his son.

"I realize there's a certain amount at stake with the College World Series," Dan Carey said. "But I just wanted to do something for the people who live here. You see all the news about people who are losing their homes. … They're talking about how they might not be able to come back for months. I didn't want to talk about it anymore. I wanted to do something."

A downtown pub

Unless you're from these parts, it's hard to grasp how much the College World Series means to Omaha. Yes, it pumps in $40 million a year for the local economy. But it's more than that. Host families adopt the teams each year, feeding them barbecued chicken and occasionally going on emergency 2 a.m. laundry runs. Thousands of locals without tickets congregate around the stadium because it's the place to be, the place to show off their town.

Omaha flooding sandbagging
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comVolunteers help with sandbagging in Omaha.

Because of this pride, Frank Vance has no doubt that the city will do everything humanly possible to make sure the CWS runs smoothly. But Vance, who owns the Dubliner Pub, a popular tavern in the downtown Old Market district, fears the unknown. He is sitting outside Wednesday night, the sky clear and the weather a perfect 80 degrees, thinking about water raging hundreds of miles to the north.

He says something that very few bar owners would dare utter.

"I don't know if I would come in," Vance said. "If I was a person who came to the College World Series every year, I would really take a good, hard look at whether this is something I'd want to do. And I hate to say that because it's such an important thing for Omaha. It's a stupid thing to say, but it's an honest thing.

"But if the media's not blowing this out of proportion, and they let more water out of the dams up north, it could be disastrous."

Vance worries about downpours and backed-up sewers. His bar is underground. He's preparing for the best and the worst. Like many watering holes throughout Omaha, the Dubliner has a long, jovial history with the College World Series. Strangers come into the bar and walk out with out-of-town friends. Teams with no ties to the area get adopted for their personality and grit.

So Vance will just watch and wait now, with the games so close to his pub and the unknown a few blocks farther to the east. And that's a shame, he says, because the new facility is spectacular. It makes you never want to leave.

"I see sandbags at [the] Qwest [Center], and it's never a good sign when CNN shows up with their trucks in Omaha, Neb.," Vance said. "The only thing that could be worse is Jim Cantore. He doesn't come when it's going to be sunny.

"You've got the possibility of something really not so good happening downtown and the possibility that nothing will happen. That's the thing. That's what makes it hard."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.