Meet the spider, Fargo’s flood-fighting, sandbag-filling monster

students stand around a table
Fargo middle school students fill sandbags on Tuesday. Fargo plans to fill 400,000 sandbags in preparation for potential spring flooding.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Volunteers started filling sandbags in Fargo, N.D., Tuesday, in what has become a rite of spring in the Red River city.

As floods have increased in frequency and severity over the past few decades, the garbage and recycling trucks that are usually housed in Fargo’s city garage are replaced by a highly organized sandbag-filling factory for a few days nearly every March.

Terry Ludlum, who runs the city’s solid waste department, has also been managing Sandbag Central since it started in the mid-1990s.

Back then, the sandbags were all hand-filled by teams of two: one person holding the bag open while the other filled it with a shovel.

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People still fill bags with shovels here, but the stars of Sandbag Central are two giant machines called “spiders.”

The city bought them in 2009, as Fargo faced a desperate flood fight that ultimately required about six million sandbags. Ludlum said they knew there would be no way their volunteers could fill that many bags by hand. So, they looked north for help.

"We happened to get in touch with a gentleman up in Winnipeg that made these,” he said. “It's called the sandbagger. It's just a spider machine, and he had two of them made and he and his wife drove those down in the middle of the night. We set them up, and sure enough they were everything he claimed them to be."

a sign painted like a thermometer tracks progress
A sign in Fargo's sandbag central tracks progress toward filling 400,000 sandbags.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Ludlum said he thinks the city paid just under $45,000 for the pair — which they’ve used nearly every year since.

The spiders are 12-legged, 20-foot-high, sandbag-filling monsters. They have 12 chutes apiece that hang from the top of the machine.

“Properly staffed, each one of those chutes probably needs about six people because they fill every 10 seconds — and so, you need two people putting the bags under there,” Ludlum said. "Then you pass them back and somebody twists them and then somebody ties it."

The filled bags move their way down the work line, passed from volunteer to volunteer, tied shut with wire using a machine that looks a lot like a cordless electric drill.

The next person stacks them on pallets.

Fargo middle school students provide the muscle to run the machines for four hours each day, then community volunteers take over for the rest of the 12-hour day. It takes about 150 people to keep the two spiders running — and city officials plan to keep the sandbag hive running through Friday this week.

At the other end of the garage, a couple dozen people are working old-school, filling sandbags with a shovel.

Among them are the husband-and-wife team of John and Karen Eiler. They've been helping with Fargo’s flood-fighting efforts since 1989. Back then, they had small kids, so they had to take turns filling sandbags. Now the kids are grown, so the Eilers are sandbagging together.

John said the reason they're there is simple.

"They call for volunteers, and if you're in a community, you volunteer when you have the time — or you make time,” he said. “We don't want anybody losing their house, so if we can contribute we will do that. That's what we do up here, right?"

Ludlum plans to have 400,000 sandbags filled by the end of the week. Then city officials will wait for the National Weather Service flood forecast — and hope they don't need to use those sandbags, or put the spiders back in action again.