Article Series (Print Publication)

An Omaha utility emerges as a survivor and a victor

Last summer’s Missouri River flood lasted three months and menaced an Omaha Public Power District nuclear plant, attracting global scrutiny. Here’s how the utility responded.



Rarely have the Ragan Awards picked a winner in its “Best Article Series” category that faced the imminent prospect of catastrophic damage—and lived to tell the story, triumphantly, not merely as a “survivor” but as a victor, stronger than ever.

That winner is Flash, the employee magazine of the Omaha Public Power District. Flash, edited by Paula Lukowski, tracked the epic story of the 2011 floods in bi-monthly issues from June through December.

The OPPD maintains three baseload power plants on the Missouri. That meant the OPPD’s struggle with floodwaters was grim and dramatic. At stake was power for a third of a million customers, and protecting more than $3 billion in hard assets—buildings and machinery.

Complicating this was the threat to the environment posed by the vulnerability of OPPD’s Fort Calhoun Station nuclear reactor.

Gary Gates, president and CEO of OPPD, said of this time:

“This was as close to being at war as we could ever be. We were at war with the river. We had people . . . on the front line making sacrifices. We had a supply group and a strategy group, and others were coordinating with cities, counties, customers and others.”

Lukowski ran stories about fighting the flood in the July-August and September-October issues, of course. But she gave it the full treatment in the November-December is of Flash. Ten full-length stories dealt with every part of the saga:

  1. The historical scope of the flood, the largest in recorded history
  2. Safety: How the flood improved OPPD’s safety performance
  3. Emergency planning: The historical context, including Y2K prep in 2000
  4. How ordinary OPD workers saved the power plants and kept them producing electricity by raising berms, walls, walkways, even 8 miles of railroad track
  5. The newness of the flood threat—different from any the OPPD had faced
  6. Tracking costs of the flood and going after FEMA reimbursements
  7. The logistics of supplying workers fighting the waters
  8. The role of the upstream Gavins Point dam in flood control
  9. The effect of the flood on workers’ homes, commutes, recreation, and work schedules
  10. The global Internet and media attention on the flood and the epic effort to save the Fort Calhoun nuclear power station

By any standard, this November-December issue delivers superior organizational reporting. The drama, the pressure to tell the full story quickly and accurately, the comprehensive reporting on almost every conceivable aspect of this fight to the finish, everything couched in the clearest, most readable prose—make this issue memorable and a decisive winner.

To view the winning work please click here.

Editor: Paula Lukowski


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