The tools that can hold back waterby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
The massive effort to prepare for what's expected to be record flooding continues today in Fargo. Some high schools and universities remain closed as thousands of volunteers fill sandbags to stave off the rising Red River. The good news is that Fargo officials have some new tools to keep back flood waters.
Moorhead, Minn. — At Fargo's sandbag central, volunteers gather around a tall machine that's being fed sand by a long conveyer belt. An auger dumps the sand into 12 feeder arms.
Clusters of volunteers wait at the bottom of each arm, where their sandbags are filled effortlessly, then loaded onto pallets.
There are two more of these sandbagging machines in this large city garage. Together, they're capable of producing 15,000 sandbags an hour.
Terry Ludlum oversees the operation. Ludlum said without these machines, there's no way the city would have enough sandbags in time for when the Red River crests on Friday or Saturday.
"Older technology, when we'd run a 12-hour day here, we were really happy to get 100,000 bags," Ludlum said. "Yesterday in our 24-hour period, we were actually able to do about 450,000 bags."
Fargo was initially told the crest wouldn't come until the first or second week of April. When the National Weather Service moved its prediction earlier -- to this weekend -- city officials were worried.
Ludlum said that's when the city decided to purchase two sandbagging machines from a company in Winnipeg. The third machine is on loan from Grand Forks.
"We lost basically two full weeks of operations," Ludlum said. "We knew we couldn't go with the old technology and make it work. That was impossible. And so we were fortunate enough to get in touch with these folks and bring in these machines."
In another part of Fargo, there's more new technology at work. A fleet of Bobcats dumps tons of sand into a long wall of interlocking containers. Like flexible baskets, they're made of steel mesh and stand four feet high.
First Lt. Scott Reed with the North Dakota National Guard is supervising soldiers working on this portable dike system.
"They're so much faster than sandbagging is," Reed said. "In about 30 minutes, you can cover what it would take three hours of sandbagging to do. It's incredibly fast, and a lot more reliable than sandbagging would be."
This is the latest in temporary dike technology, created by a company called Hesco USA. It was originally made for erosion control. But company president Stephanie Victory says the product is just starting to be deployed in communities facing large-scale flooding.
"In Iowa last year, Burlington, Iowa, we surrounded a water treatment plant," Victory said. "The University of Iowa used it to protect some of their critical infrastructure. And we had great success there. The product has been deployed in Louisiana for Hurricane Katrina, Gustav and Ike."
Victory expects the portable boxes will become a standard tool for flood fighting. She said they have a huge advantage over sandbagging.
"You can do about a 3 foot-by-30 foot sandbag wall with 77 man hours," she said. "And you can deploy that same amount of... Hesco product... in about 20 minutes."
For now, the biggest user of the portable wall system is the U.S. military. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan use the boxes to make bunkers and protective barriers.
By the end of the week, the Fargo are could have close to eight miles of portable box walls scattered throughout the city. There will also be dikes made of close to two million sandbags.