When the National Weather Service started talking about the possibility of another big flood this year, city leaders in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., decided to get prepared earlier than ever before.
Last year, record flooding prompted a frantic effort by thousands of volunteers to fill millions of sandbags in just a few days.
This year, Moorhead's mayor and city council were running the shovels at the city garage, trying to get a head start on the sandbagging efforts.
City Council member Mark Altenburg said it was more difficult to get volunteers out without a crisis.
"Last year we had that panic sensation go through the community, that really galvanized us," Altenburg said. "It's going to be hard. I hope we can ramp it up. The more we do ahead of time the less we'll have to do when the water's rising. It's going to be tough, it's going to be hard work, but we have to get it done."
Moorhead hopes to fill at least 300,000 sandbags in the next couple of weeks. If things go well they might put 500,000 bags in reserve. Mayor Mark Voxland said after last year's record flood, residents are nervous about what might happen this year. "Where the nights quit going below freezing is when we start to see the water really start to run," Voxland said. "We've got to be vigilant watching that darn river and and at the same time make sandbags and be ready."
Only a handful of volunteers showed up as the sandbagging started. Jeff Blake, who lives in a Moorhead neighborhood that was evacuated last year, came to sandbag because he likes the idea of preparing ahead of time for possible flooding, he said. He is already getting his home ready.
"We've started getting things packed out of our basement. Mementos, things like that. We've never had water but it's just one of those things," he said. "Better safe than sorry."
Across the Red River in Fargo, the city's solid waste building will become "sandbag central" where three sandbag machines called spiders are set up. Each machine takes about 50 people to operate and can fill about 5,000 sandbags per hour.
For now, the machines are silent.
About 20 inmates from the county jail wearing orange sweatshirts shoveled sand into bags.
In a corner of the large garage, retiree Don Such was among a handful of volunteers.
"I do it every year," he said. "I'm getting tired."
Such said even if this years flood isn't as bad as last year's, it's important to be ready.
"I'm hopeful, but you never know. That's why you've got to show up for these things because you never know where it's going."
Such said it might take a little longer to get volunteers motivated when flooding hasn't even started, but he said when the water starts running, sandbagging operations will be full.
Fargo City Commissioner Mike Williams said having a million sandbags loaded on shrink wrapped pallets, ready to go, would offer great peace of mind when the water starts rising.
Williams said waiting to see how bad flooding will be has a lot of people nervous and anxious. Throwing sandbags is good therapy, he said.
"It's kind of like a squirrel. They get ready for winter, we get ready for floods," he said. "You can sit around and worry about it or you can come and make a few bags. it really does give you a sense you at least have some control over your environment and you're helping the cause."
Both cities will continue the sandbag effort as long as needed. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service will release its next flood outlook on Friday.