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Water drop brings less patrol, new plans for Missouri Airmen

Airmen with the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard patrol a levee along the Missouri River in south St. Joseph, Mo., Aug. 10. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith, Missouri Air National Guard)

Airmen with the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard patrol a levee along the Missouri River in south St. Joseph, Mo., Aug. 10. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith, Missouri Air National Guard)

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Missouri Air National Guard members here continued their support in the community this week after a swollen Missouri River began its slow retreat from flooded roadways, farmland, homes and levee banks.

Airmen from the 139th Airlift Wing are serving in liaison with community leaders, through levee patrols, security patrols, aerial survey and other state emergency duty supporting the Missouri Joint Force Headquarters and emergency operations center.

"The county and the city are astounded from the level of performance from our Airmen," said Col. Michael Pankau, Wing commander.

Airmen are working with civil authorities as well as the Kansas Army National Guard to monitor local levees.

"When we first started, we were on 24-hour operations, running three shifts," said Master Sgt. Jason Vannaman, standing atop a dirt levee a few miles from the base.

Since early July, Vannaman and teams of other citizen-Airmen patrolled many miles of levee, fighting back the swelling river to protect homes and farmland.

Now, they cut back on patrols but continue to monitor levee erosion caused by new currents from a river in retreat.

"We are looking to make sure it's not eroding out any more than usual," said Vannaman.

Although water overtopping the levees is now unexpected, Vannaman explained it can still tunnel underneath, causing sand boils inside protected areas.

Working with civilian authorities, they identified and mitigated more than 60 sand boils south of the city. Some measured 12 to 36 inches in diameter, and they might have turned into serious breaches, if allowed.

"When they get big, they cause a lot of concern," said Vannaman. "We were able to get them stopped."

Like others, Vannaman took time off from his civilian job to work on state emergency duty. He normally works as a union metal fabricator.

He said he is relieved to see the water going down, especially for the residents and farmers.

"It's just not going down fast enough," he said.

Signs of a return to normal operations at Rosecrans Air Guard Base began with the water's retreat, but it will be some time before the last sandbag is emptied, officials said.

When the flood waters hit, Airmen moved their aircraft and equipment from Rosecrans to higher ground. Since then, they have operated out of several locations, including Kansas City International Airport.

"We minimized the risk to federal assets, and the money and effort we spent was insurance compared to what the loss would have been if the levees didn't hold," said Pankau.

The levees held, and the buildings, runways and taxiways remained dry.

At the moment, the base's critical infrastructure is surrounded by 8-foot-high sand barriers, which Airmen hurriedly erected last month.

Those barriers will remain until more river-water flows downstream, said officials.

Pankau said he attended the first planning meeting on how to move Airmen, aircraft and equipment back home for normal operations.

"We're going to set a priority of how we move back into the base and reconstitute and perform the mission from here, as opposed to the seven locations we are currently operating from," he said.