Anticipating spring flooding along the Red River, volunteers in Fargo, N.D., began filling sandbags Monday. They plan to fill 3 million sandbags in the next month.
National Weather Service forecasters have predicted a 20 percent chance of flooding in the Fargo-Moorhead area this year, and they warn it could be as bad as the record flood of 2009.
View a photo gallery from "Sandbag Central."
Fargo officials are preparing for a worst case scenario and hoping good weather will reduce the flood threat.
About 120 volunteers filled sandbags in a city warehouse that normally houses garbage trucks. Forklifts loaded pallets full of sandbags on a flatbed truck. A few plastic palm trees stood next to piles of sand in the building dubbed sandbag central, and in a nod to Valentine's Day, a banner proclaimed "we love our volunteers."
Early Monday, the operation was running at about half capacity, Fargo solid waste manager Terry Ludlum said. The three sandbag machines each need about 60 volunteers to operate. Ludlum said the sandbagging operation can easily find work for up to 350 volunteers at a time.
Last year, the city also started filling sandbags early, and officials learned that without the urgency of rising water, it's more difficult to get volunteers involved, Ludlum said.
"Optimistically we'd sure like to get in the range of 150,000 bags a day. That would put us on a pace of about 20 days of production," he said. "Actually last year we only averaged about 70,000 bags a day. And we know we can't get to our 3 million goal at 70,000 bags a day."
The sandbagging operation will get a boost on Tuesday and Wednesday, when about 200 eighth graders from Fargo schools show up to help.
But on Monday, volunteer activity was slow. Shuttle buses arriving from several parking locations in the morning were nearly empty.
Many of the people filling sandbags were city and Cass County, N.D., employees. Some were being paid but many were volunteers. Ludlum said he expects things to pick up later in the week.
Sheriff Paul Laney stacked sandbags on pallets, working alongside about two dozen minimum-security Cass County jail inmates who had volunteered.
"We didn't really have to force anybody out here," Laney said. "Most of them while they may have made some bad decisions in life, this is still their community and they want to do their part to help out."
The county plans to bring a crew of inmate volunteers each day the sandbagging operation is open, Laney said.
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, who watched the sandbag operation, said it's challenging to recruit volunteers when the situation isn't urgent.
Though cautious, Walaker is predicting the next flood outlook will bring good news when released later this week.
"We've had a great five weeks of weather. If that continues and we don't get any significant rain, we don't get any significant snow, then we can lower the crest," he said. "But I've been here a long time. I remember the March blizzard of 1966. Anything can happen; absolutely anything."
That's why the city needs to prepare for the worst case scenario, the mayor said. For the first time, any sandbags not used this year will be stored in warehouses for future floods.
Fargo will continue filling sandbags for the next several weeks. Across the river in Moorhead, sandbag operations start next week. The initial goal is to fill 300,000 bags.
Both cities are also continuing to buy and remove homes near the Red River so permanent earthen levees can replace sandbag dikes.