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Capping a $62 million rebuild, Nebraska National Guard’s Camp Ashland reopens — on stilts

ASHLAND — The Nebraska National Guard’s Camp Ashland training site has risen out of the mud, again.

Guard leaders — with help from Gov. Jim Pillen and Sens. Deb Fischer and Pete Ricketts, along with other dignitaries — cut a ribbon Friday, signifying the end of the $62 million reconstruction project that followed the destruction of the 1,184-acre military facility in the March 2019 flooding.

“This facility is about resilience,” Ricketts told a crowd gathered in a new building with an expansive view of the Platte River, just a few feet away. “This ribbon-cutting today represents that grit, that resilience that Nebraskans have, to build back better.”

The reconstruction marks a nearly complete makeover for a training camp the National Guard has used for more than 100 years. Pillen predicted that Camp Ashland, and these buildings, would last another 100 years.

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“This was an extraordinary place that got pummeled,” Pillen said. “Kudos (for) making really, really good lemonade out of lemons.”

The $35 million piece of the project dedicated Friday involved the construction of seven new classroom, barracks and administrative buildings to replace 28 single-story structures that were inundated during the first Camp Ashland flood in 2015, rebuilt, then destroyed again in 2019.

Other projects already have been completed, including a new gym and maintenance building, additional hotel-style barracks, and repairs to existing buildings and infrastructure.

The new buildings sit on 9-foot stilts — high enough that engineers believe the buildings won’t be touched if Camp Ashland should flood yet again. The interior floors are raised another 3 feet.

The Army Corps of Engineers also spent $8.5 million to extend a 7-foot concrete bulkhead that runs inside the Platte River levee, covering the entire length of the camp.

“It normally takes about five-plus years to do one project,” said Col. Christopher Weskamp, the Nebraska National Guard’s construction, facilities and maintenance officer. “In that four-year period, we cleaned up a mess, built a levee and rebuilt a camp.”

Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, the Nebraska Guard’s adjutant general, credited Nebraska’s congressional delegation with securing the reconstruction funds.

“Sen. Fischer made sure the National Guard was not forgotten,” Bohac said. “We have amazing facilities that will be the envy of the nation.”

Camp Ashland is a regional training hub used by more than 100,000 soldiers each year taking leadership courses. They come from active-duty Army, Army Reserve, as well as from the National Guards of several neighboring states in addition to Nebraska.

The camp gained national attention 11 months after the flood when 57 Americans were quarantined in one of the surviving buildings there in February 2020 after being evacuated from Wuhan, China, the earliest hot spot in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Camp Ashland’s location, just off Interstate 80 between Omaha and Lincoln, makes it easy to get to.

But the location also has been its Achilles’ heel, especially in the last decade. It sits alongside the Platte River, which is shallow and flood-prone.

The destructive flood of 2019 began after Salt Creek, which borders Camp Ashland on the south, spilled over into the camp March 13. For the next three days, the swollen Platte River clawed away at the earthen levee protecting the base on the east.

Eventually, the river ripped a wide gash in the levee and sent a torrent of water through the abandoned camp. It sloshed 2 to 4 feet higher than floodgates that had been installed after the 2015 flood, which at the time was called a once-in-1,000-years event.

Floodwaters reached a depth of up to 8 feet. Every building was damaged except for a few that had been built on stilts in the 1990s — even historic Memorial Hall, which was built in 1929 and had escaped damage in previous floods. Twenty-two had to be demolished.

Fischer recalled the devastation she witnessed four years ago, touring the facility in the wake of the flood.

“This wasn’t just harm to Camp Ashland, it was harm to the country, and our readiness,” she said. “We tried to get some good results from that horrible situation we saw here. This is such a positive result.”

Despite the double-barreled disaster, Guard officials didn’t seriously consider abandoning Camp Ashland, Bohac said. The state had invested a lot of money in roads, utilities and other infrastructure that would be costly to rebuild — assuming a suitable site could even be found.

“I have 1,100 reasons for rebuilding here. It’s 1,100 acres that we own,” said. “This is the right place for us. This is historic.”

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