North Dakota’s largest city is back in the sandbag-filling business with a new crop of volunteers after a five-year break from warding off major Red River floods.
Fargo officials this week reactivated Sandbag Central, converting a building that normally houses garbage trucks into a systematic operation combining machinery and manpower to fill 24 sandbags every 6 seconds. It saved the city in 2009, when a frantic effort led by middle school, high school and college students cranked out more than 6 million bags to barely hold back a record-setting flood.
The National Weather Service says there’s a small chance the river could approach that level this year. So while the city isn’t taking any chances, the first day of sandbagging Tuesday was more of a soft opening, in part because Fargo has made numerous changes to reduce its vulnerability and has time on its side. The Red River isn’t expected to crest until mid-April.
The cushion is helpful since many of the students and city staff members expected to be instrumental in the effort are entering their first flood fight. That was one reason the city put out a video entitled, “How to make a Fargo sandbag.”
Solid waste utility director Terry Ludlum, who leads Sandbag Central, said the operation began this week with “getting re-acclimated and catching our breath.”
Even so, volunteers produced 96,000 sandbags on the first day, just 4,000 short of their daily goal in order to make 1 million bags in two weeks. That figure was up to 201,000 bags after the second day.
Henry Maughan, a Fargo eighth-grader who was part of the first crew to build bags, said he and his fellow students watched videos in class of the intense flood fighting scene from a decade ago when the city was a foot or two of water from disaster.
“We all want to be here to help keep the city safe,” the 14-year-old said. “The attitude is very positive.”
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, of Fargo, cited the long-lingering flood threat across the Midwest that is expected to result in billions of dollars in damages as a prime example of why Fargo cannot be complacent about the looming flood.
“We don’t have to look any further than Nebraska or Iowa or Missouri to realize that even when you think you have great flood protection, it still can be topped,” Burgum said.
The action inside Sandbag Central, which a city official once described as controlled chaos, features sounds of a large bulldozer moving sand into piles, forklifts beeping and the constant whir of conveyer belts on two so-called spider machines. The belts drop sand into a chute at the top of the machine, which then funnels down through 12 metal pipes — the spider legs — arranged in a circle. One volunteer holds the sandbag as it fills, another spins the bag and another uses a tool to twist on a wire seal.
The sandbags are then stacked on pallets and picked up by forklift drivers who have mastered the art of zigzagging around volunteers, machinery, other pallets and other forklift drivers.
“It’s a system that as a volunteer you have to time well with the sand coming off the conveyer belt,” said Jessica Zimbeck, a Fargo resident making her first appearance at Sandbag Central.
“It’s a good workout. I don’t have to go the gym afterward,” said Derrick Hollingsworth, who drove 40 miles from a small North Dakota town to chip in.
Fargo, a city of about 122,000, has long struggled with flooding due to the flat topography of the Red River Valley. The city’s hopes for one day shutting down Sandbag Central for good depend on a $2.75 billion diversion channel to steer water around Fargo. Construction began last year but was halted by permitting issues ; the project is also being challenged in court by upstream landowners whose land will be flooded in times of high water.
The city has spent some $430 million in the past decade on other steps to lessen the threat. More than 21 miles of permanent levees and floodwalls have been built, more than 240 homes on the flood plain have been bought out, and 17 new lift stations have been added to pump water out of storm sewers into the river.
About 52 miles of emergency levees were built in 2009 when the river crested at an all-time high of about 41 feet. Should the river approach 38 feet this time, the city will need 10 miles of temporary protection.
“Certainly we are preparing for somewhat of a worst-case scenario,” Ludlum said. “The key to the whole sandbag operation is volunteers.”
One of those volunteers, Steve Vogel, 60, of Fargo, grabbed a shovel and filled bags the old-fashioned way, while declaring that there’s nothing wrong with “getting a little sweat worked up.” Vogel, who has been through all the high water woes in the last 20 years, said it felt all too familiar to be back at Sandbag Central.
“At first it was a little mesmerizing, but now it’s just deja vu,” he said.
Cody Nirschl, who was a North Dakota State University student when he helped in the 2009 effort, said there’s an “amazing sense of volunteer spirit” and optimism among the people at Sandbag Central about keeping the city dry again this year.
“We’ve got this in the bag,” he said.