How to coordinate a river of volunteersby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
It's been nearly a week since volunteer operations began in the Fargo-Moorhead area to prepare for the rising Red River, now expected to crest at a record 41 feet on Saturday. Tens of thousands of people have volunteered to fill sandbags, build dikes or provide other support. Managing all those volunteers is a monumental task.
Fargo, N.D. — A bank of 20 phones rings pretty much nonstop at a 24-hour flood information call center in Fargo.
This call center is a place where people can get information about anything related to the flood. It's mostly so volunteers can find out where to go.
Phone operators at the center direct volunteers to one of several registration points. The challenge is getting people to where they're needed most.
Hotline operations director Natasha Conway says it's especially tough in these final hours before the Red River crests this weekend.
"Things have changed now, pretty much every hour. So we have priority lists of where volunteers need to get sent," said Conway. "You need to really be in contact with those people that have the information."
Communications are always challenging in a crisis. Fargo learned a lot from from the record flooding in 1997. This time around, the city has more coordinators at neighborhood sandbagging sites. That way they can better deal with problems as they arise, and immediately request more volunteers. Conway says the system is constantly tweaked.
"Each day we learn how to make it better. We will be better prepared if and when this happens again. It's a learning process," said Conway.
Volunteers are initially directed to registration sites, like one that's located in a church gymnasium. There's a constant flow of hundreds of volunteers arriving for duty.
Many of these volunteers are college students from the area, but some have come from farther away.
Michael Sund and some friends drove up from Minneapolis. Sund says they had a break from school and just wanted to help.
"You don't get that much chance to do physical labor anymore, and I kind of enjoy it," said Sund. "It's fun, just to kind of go on an adventure, you know? And if it helps people, that's cool, too, because Fargo is a good town."
The volunteer effort hasn't been without problems. Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral says things can sometimes get chaotic.
"We had a period of time two days ago where we had people being brought to places where there were no sandbags, and we had sandbags that were waiting for the volunteers, and it took us a little while to get that coordination," said Zavoral. "It always does, because you never anticipate the number of volunteers you're going to get."
Zavoral says if the city puts out a call for 1,000 volunteers, they may get 6,000. That means coordinators have to be flexible.
Transportation has become another big issue over the past couple of days. Many of the roads in Fargo are still covered with snow and ice from a blizzard that moved through Tuesday and Wednesday. On top of that, flooding has begun to close more and more roads.
There's another issue the city is trying to get a handle on. Some volunteers don't bother to register, and they just drive their cars to sites where they think help is needed. Police Chief Keith Ternes says that's causing congestion problems.
We want to encourage, if you're volunteering, to go to the sites where buses will take you there," said Ternes. "If you live in areas where sandbagging is being done, if you can get your vehicles off the street and out of the area -- anything to keep those areas as clear as possible for that heavy equipment."
On Wednesday, volunteers filled half a million sandbags. That effort continues, along with the big job of raising existing dikes by one to two feet.
It's all to get ready for what's expected to be an unprecedented high crest of the Red River on Saturday.
- Morning Edition, 03/27/2009, 7:20 a.m.