Fargo readies sandbags in advance of Red River flooding

"Spider" machine
Sand drops into a "spider" sandbag-filling machine where volunteers bag and stack it on pallets. Three machines were running on Wednesday, April 3, 2013, and sandbag operation manager Bruce Grubb said each machine has the ability to produce about 6,000 sandbags an hour.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Sandbags were being filled Wednesday morning in Fargo in preparation for flooding later this month when the Red River is expected to spill out of its banks.

Floodwaters are expected to start rising in mid April along the Red River and its tributaries. How high the water gets will depend on how quickly the snow melts and how much rain or snow falls.

Leaders in Fargo and Moorhead said they are better prepared for high water than ever before.

Photos: How Fargo's 'Sandbag Central' works

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Fargo plans to fill one million sandbags in about ten days. Half of the sandbags will be for use in the city, the rest will be sent to rural areas of Cass County.

The city opened the sandbag operation in a large city garage where three sandbag machines called spiders produce as many as 18,000 sandbags per hour.

The machines automatically distribute the correct amount of sand down a series of tubes, filling bags held by volunteers. As bags are filled they are stacked on pallets, loaded on trucks and moved to storage areas.

Loading sand
First, sand is loaded from a pile outside to a bin connected to a conveyer belt. Fargo plans to fill 1 million sandbags in the next 10 days; half for use in the city and half for use in rural areas nearby.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

"It's so organized. Do we get good after four floods in five years? Probably, said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, praising the efficient operation run by city staff and volunteers. "But it's good to see all the activity."

"We have three sandbag machines operating in here right now," said Bruce Grubb, who manages the sandbag operation. "Each of them have the ability to produce about 6,000 sandbags an hour."

While sandbag operations are in high gear in Fargo, it's quiet across the river in Moorhead, where volunteers are not filling any sandbags.

Moorhead has about 400,000 sandbags left over from the 2011 flood. City manager Michael Redlinger said that amount should be more than enough for even the National Weather Service's worst-case flood.

Fargo also has sandbags in storage, left over from the 2011 flood. The city will fill enough sandbags to be prepared for the worst-case scenario in the current National Weather Service flood outlook, a flood similar to the record-setting 40.8 foot river level in 2009.

Even at that level, Fargo would need far fewer sandbags than were used in 2009. About 2.5 million sandbags were used to protect Fargo homes in 2009, but a similar river level this year would require an estimated 980,000 sandbags.

During the 2009 flood, Moorhead used 1.9 million sandbags to protect homes. The same river level this year would require about 360,000 sandbags.

More than 200 homes near the Red River have been purchased since 2009. In some flood-prone neighborhoods, all of the homes where volunteers stacked thousands of sandbags in 2009 are now gone, replaced by permanent earthen levees.

In 2009, Fargo constructed 46 miles of emergency protection, including earthen levees on streets and sandbag dikes in backyards. For the same river level this year, city engineers estimate 16 miles of emergency protection would be needed.