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Inside the beehive of Fargo's Sandbag Central; St. Paul accelerates flood prep

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Fargo opens Sandbag Central
Hundreds of volunteers are needed to operate sandbag-filling machines at Fargo's Sandbag Central, located in a warehouse just northwest of downtown. The city of Fargo is planning to fill a million sandbags ahead of anticipated spring flooding on the Red River.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Cities on Minnesota's eastern edge, along the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, have been filling sandbags since last week in anticipation of forecast major spring flooding. 

On Tuesday, the city of Fargo, N.D., kicked off its own sandbag machinery, with its sister city of Moorhead, Minn., scheduled to follow Wednesday.

In St. Paul, city officials watched the Mississippi River rise over Harriet Island, and put up additional temporary levees to block the city's lowest-slung sections from the encroaching river.

A pontoon boats down the Mississippi River in St. Paul.
A pontoon boats down the Mississippi River in St. Paul as the river floods Tuesday afternoon.
Peter Cox | MPR News

And along the Minnesota River in Henderson, Sibley County, a single road in and out of town remains open.

MPR News reporters are fanned out across the state, monitoring rivers' rise. Here's what we're seeing today.

Fargo: Inside the beehive of Sandbag Central

Fargo opens Sandbag Central
Volunteers fill sandbags Tuesday at one of 12 stations on a machine the city of Fargo uses to speed-fill sandbags. The machine, called a spider, fills 12 sandbags every six seconds and about 100 volunteers are needed to keep each machine working at full speed.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Along the Red River this week, Fargo and Moorhead are filling thousands of sandbags to prepare for spring flooding. 

City staff organize the work, but it's the hundreds of volunteers who make it happen. 

Walking into the warehouse that serves as Sandbag Central is a lot like putting your head in a beehive. There's steady buzz of voices and machines and a swarm of movement. People are working in teams to create neatly stacked piles of sandbags. 

The activity is focused around two machines called "spiders." Each has 12 metal pipes fanned out in a circle, angled toward the ground. A conveyer at the top drops sand down each pipe every six seconds, filling sandbags held at the bottom by a volunteer. 

That first person passes the sandbag to another, who spins the bag shut and passes it to another, who uses an electric tool to twist on a wire seal and pass it to another, who adds it to a growing pile. 

Six forklifts are in constant motion, shuttling pallets of filled bags to waiting trucks. Firefighters and police officers manage traffic so no one gets run over. 

Fargo officials are preparing for a worst-case scenario, planning to fill a million sandbags this week and next. According to National Weather Service outlooks, a worst-case scenario would bring the Red River near the record level it reached in 2009.

Fargo opens Sandbag Central
A folding table filled with work gloves is ready for volunteers at Sandbag Central in Fargo, N.D., on Tuesday. The highly organized operation provides safety gear and food for hundreds of volunteers who show up to fill sandbags.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Moorhead, just across the river, is also getting ready for the possibility of near-record flooding, and planning to fill 150,000 sandbags starting Wednesday. But if the current dry weather holds for a couple weeks, many of the sandbags being stockpiled might never get wet.

Officials will know more when the National Weather Service starts issuing its flood forecasts, likely sometime next week.

Terry Ludlum, a city employee, runs Fargo's sandbag operation. "We can make 12 bags every six seconds," Ludlum said. "But the whole thing is driven off of labor. So if we can get the labor in the door, the spiders can be incredibly efficient." 

On its first day in operation, much of Fargo Sandbag Central's labor was provided by 200 eighth-graders, on leave from the city's Ben Franklin Middle School. The teenagers were paired with adult volunteers, working in three-hour shifts. For some, it was their first experience filling sandbags.

Across one of the spiders from a handful of students, Anna Vanek used a wire gun to twist on the ties that hold the sandbags closed. 

She drove 80 miles from Grand Forks, N.D., to work a full day on the sandbag line Tuesday.

Fargo opens Sandbag Central
Kendall Railing and his 5-year-old son, Alec, fill sandbags the old-fashioned way on Tuesday in Fargo.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"These kids are out here, they're working so hard, they're being safe," she said. "I'm so happy that the schools and their parents let them come out and help today. It's just awesome what they're doing." 

Vanek was a teenager herself when floodwaters inundated Grand Forks in 1997. Her family was forced to evacuate. 

"I remember the water coming up from the gutters. I remember the last-minute warning to evacuate," she said. "It was really tragic, everything that happened back then, and I just want to do my part now and help out." 

At the other end of the warehouse Tuesday morning, the pace was less frenetic. 

Kendall Railing sat on a folding chair next to a mountain of sand. He held a sandbag open so Alec, his 5-year-old, could fill it with a green plastic shovel. 

Railing brought three sons — a 7-year-old, the 5-year-old and a 3-year-old — to help fill sandbags. Their family lives near the Red River, and they might need some of these sandbags in a couple of weeks, he said. 

"We feel that it's a good opportunity for us to come and help the city and volunteer, and it's good for our kids to learn the importance of that, as well," he said.

The slower-paced setup on one side of the warehouse is by design. Ludlum, who runs the operation, said the city doesn't want to turn away any volunteers. 

"We want to make it a setting that they're enjoying a little bit, too," he said. "And then we've got some folks that just aren't comfortable around the machinery, and we like to get them in here and start working in a relaxed atmosphere. It's all about the community coming together and we want to give opportunities for everybody that walks in the door."  

If the volunteers keep walking in the door, they will fill about 100,000 sandbags a day, hitting Fargo's goal of a million by late next week. 

— Dan Gunderson | Fargo, N.D.

St. Paul: Temporary levees and giant sandbags protect downtown's lowest reaches

A flooded walkway along the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul.
The Mississippi River floods a walkway at Upper Landing Park in downtown St. Paul Tuesday afternoon.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Officials in St. Paul have shifted into hurry-up mode to prepare for the rising waters of the Mississippi.

The city has put up a temporary levee to block the Mississippi River from encroaching on the lowest portions of downtown.

Public works crews used gravel and giant sandbags to block openings in the railroad viaduct on Shepard Road, which runs along the river. The temporary levees have sealed off Jackson and Sibley streets, which lead from Shepard to the city's Lowertown neighborhood.

Kathy Lantry, the city's public works director, said decades of construction and millions of dollars of investment have established permanent flood protection across the river from downtown. But that type of protection isn't practical on the downtown side.

"We think we can do this flood for about three-quarters of a million dollars," Lantry said. "That's certainly not nothing, but that's tens of millions that it would cost to do a permanent levee fix on this side."

Other preparations include closing off some storm sewers, blocking roads along the riverfront and installing temporary levees in the area of the historic lower landing. 

Lantry said the water has been rising faster than expected.

"Normally it rises about a foot a day, [but lately] we've been seeing about 3 feet a day, which has accelerated some of our work, which has been a challenge," she said.

The National Weather Service forecasts suggest floodwaters in St. Paul this spring will be similar to the city's most recent high water, in 2014.

— Tim Nelson | St. Paul