FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Volunteers shoveled heaps of sand and carefully maneuvered around humming machinery Monday inside a warehouse dubbed “Sandbag Central” in Fargo, where officials hope to pile up 3 million sandbags as the eastern North Dakota city prepares for a third major flood in as many years.
Efforts are starting early to prepare for flooding along the Red River in Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn. The National Weather Service predicts that spring snow melt will help swell the river over its flood stage, possibly breaking the record set in 2009 when floods caused an estimated $100 million in damage.
Businesses and home owners scrambled to prepare the past two years — school officials even cancelled classes so students could help fill sand bags. But this year, city officials are hoping the early startup will spread out the workload and ease flood fatigue, and keep most students in class.
“We think this will allow everybody to avoid that crisis mode,” said Bruce Grubb, a city employee in his third year of directing operations at the warehouse.
Unlike the last two years, most students aren't getting out of school to help fill sand bags. Instead, the city asked businesses to commit to help early even though the river isn't likely to crest for at least six weeks. Microsoft Corp., one of the city's largest employers with about 900 workers, plans to give its people 16 hours of paid time to help and will shuttle employees back and forth.
More than 100 people kicked off the effort at 8 a.m. Monday, including nearly two dozen minimum-security inmates from the Cass County jail clad in orange jail clothing. They worked alongside volunteers who were greeted by inflatable palm trees, a spread of food and drinks and music.
“You know, this group, they are more bad decision-makers than bad people,” said Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney, who worked with the inmates. “This is their community too. They wanted to do their part to help.”
Although some inmates could get time shaved from their sentences, many are due to be released soon, including Brian Johnston, who expected to be out “any day now” on a driving while under the influence sentence.
“Rather than sitting around doing nothing, wasting time, I get to help the community and save some houses,” said Johnston, whose uncle in West Fargo had major flooding on his property last year.
Laney didn't mind the change of pace. Wearing jeans, a stocking cap and a short-sleeved T-shirt over a long-sleeved shirt, he joked with one of his deputies that the county had changed their uniforms. But he noted the importance of the work.
In 2009, the river was above flood stage for a record 61 days. About 100 homes in the area were damaged, and thousands of people were evacuated. The flood costs were estimated to be $100 million. Last year's storm wasn't nearly as severe, but forecasters say there's about a 50 percent chance this year could be worse than 2010, and about a 20 percent chance the river could swell past its 2009 level.
“You know you have to do it. Are people tired of fighting floods? Absolutely. But we have to be ready,” Laney said.
Most of the workers were directed to three sandbag filling machines called “spiders,” each with 12 funnels and capable of filling 5,000 bags an hour. But others were handed a shovel.
“I love it,” Don Bachmeier said as he lifted sand into individual bags. “At least here you can stop and talk. If you miss your turn with a spider, you wind up with a pocket full of sand.”
One volunteer, Ryan Skarka, drove more than 50 miles from Detroit Lakes, Minn., and took a vacation day from work to fill sandbags. He said he owes something to local residents, because thousands of them helped tornado victims last summer in Wadena, Minn., where his parents lost their garage and their house's roof to the storm.
“It always feels good to help someone who needs it, or is going to need it,” Skarka said.