Fighting Floods From Sandbag Central

Shoveling Sand i i

Three-year-old Carsen Gianakos uses his plastic shovel to assist in the sandbagging efforts on Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at "Sandbag Central," a warehouse in Fargo, N.D. Jay Pickthorn/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jay Pickthorn/AP
Shoveling Sand

Three-year-old Carsen Gianakos uses his plastic shovel to assist in the sandbagging efforts on Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at "Sandbag Central," a warehouse in Fargo, N.D.

Jay Pickthorn/AP

Weekend storms overwhelmed much of the Northeast, flooding roads and forcing hundreds of people to evacuate. In the plains, towns along the Red River are bracing for the river to crest soon.

Cindy Miller, executive director for First Link, is in "sandbag central" in Fargo, North Dakota, helping the city prepare. Miller tells host Neal Conan students from all over the region are volunteering in Fargo, as well as community members.

Fargo has had a number of rough flood years, including record floods in 2009. As for this year, Miller is hopeful their preparations will withstand the water. "We're looking at cresting on Sunday, at about 38 feet. Our record, ever, was a little over 40 feet."

Miller offers some tips to help communities withstand floods. She stresses the importance of early preparation, and coordination between various groups. "The community knew that we needed them once more to step up," she says, "but I can tell people are definitely tired this year. We just got through it, and here we go again."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In Boston and parts of the Northeast, the combination of melting snow and last weekend's deluge toppled trees, flooded roads and forced hundreds to evacuate their homes. In the Northern plains, the rising Red River threatens Fargo, North Dakota, and it's just the matter of time before all that water heads downstream. If you're in a flood fight, getting ready, if you've done it before, call us with lessons learned: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Cindy Miller, executive director at First Link, an organization that helps cities and counties organize volunteer resources. She joins us from sandbag central in Fargo. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Ms. CINDY MILLER (Executive Director, First Link): Hello.

CONAN: What is sandbag central?

Ms. MILLER: Sandbag central is a place where they are making sandbags and having thousands of volunteers have been coming in and making sandbags and then at that point we have volunteers register and go to other areas with the sandbags and actually place them. But sandbag central is where they're actually building the sandbags and putting together. We have machines called octopuses that have arms that are helping with the process. It's amazing.

CONAN: Oh, the octopuses hold the bags open?

Ms. MILLER: Nope. They swing the sand through them and they just continue around and keep filling, you hold the bags underneath and pass them down the row, so...

CONAN: I see. So it's a little like a bucket brigade?

Ms. MILLER: Yes, Yep.

CONAN: Okay. And what kind of people you're getting in there?

Ms. MILLER: We are getting volunteers from all over the area. It's amazing. We have people, of course, you know, in our community we have three colleges which is wonderful, but also we're getting high schools and colleges and other groups from Moorhead, Minnesota, and North Dakota - both states. They're coming in from all over the place, which is wonderful, and of course, a really wonderful following of community members around here.

CONAN: Moorhead, Minnesota, right across the river from you there in Fargo?

Ms. MILLER: Yep.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. MILLER: Yeah.

CONAN: And so are, you know, other kinds of volunteer groups coming in, baseball teams, anything like that?

Ms. MILLER: We've had some (unintelligible) from a lot of a high schools and colleges around here. Sports teams are coming in, just general and just groups from the schools in general, you know? So maybe a certain class is coming or whatever. Yeah, so it's been wonderful. The support has been great.

CONAN: And I have to ask, I mean, it seems like almost every year we hear about flood warnings in Fargo.

Ms. MILLER: We had a couple rough years in a row here. We've had - '97, we had a bad year. 2006 we had trouble. Last year we had a record flood. And now, this year, at the moment, it looks like it's not going to be quite - we're looking at cresting on Sunday at about 38 feet. Our record ever was a little over 40 feet. So at the moment we're hoping that it stays at the 38. And we've got things built, dykes and everything, you know, ready for that.

So they're hoping on Sunday it will crest and last year we had a couple crest so it was we had a longer process. So we're hoping that we have one process, this year, one crest and then we're done.

CONAN: And then you're done and people downstream can start working.

Ms. MILLER: Yeah. Well, and then that's exactly right now. People from this area will be helping them as they helped us to, too. So it's - the community is amazing.

CONAN: I wonder though, people must get awfully tired.

Ms. MILLER: You know people are exhausted right now. We just came off a last year's. Some people house is still are being remodeled or redone for last year, or they're waiting for information from FEMA on buyouts, and cities and counties and stuff like that. So some people are still I think, a lot of people are - they're feeling a little bit of stress from going through it two years back to back. It's been pretty hard on people.

CONAN: Is your house okay?

Ms. MILLER: Yep. My house is fine. So I am one of the lucky ones, I guess. I'm blessed that way. So which is nice because then I can help work longer hours and longer days here and help with that something else.

CONAN: And I wonder. After participating in these efforts to coordinate volunteers, what lessons might you have to offer to other people about well, how to deal with a flood?

Ms. MILLER: Yeah. Well, we you know, we do it's amazing, the community has resilience committees now and groups. We've gone through this now before. So the committees and groups and all the people who worked together during the disaster come together. We've been meeting all for the last couple of months. Planning things and trying to get things in order, so this year is running even way smoother than last year.

And, you know, we collaborated well last year, but it's amazing that once you've been together now and you're working together, you figured out what we learned from last year, so it's been good.

CONAN: And you've got some continuity, same people and same jobs? That sort of thing.

Ms. MILLER: That's exactly right. So we have two years in a row. So you know each other and you know what's expected and, kind of, what's going to go through. So, you know, it's - and the community knew that we needed them once more to step up, and they had stepped up again. But I can tell people are definitely tired this year. You know, we just got through it, and here we go again. So it's hard.

CONAN: And finally, as you go through all these effort, the - there's a real bond that develops with the people...

Ms. MILLER: There is. Yeah.

CONAN: ...and their town.

Ms. MILLER: Yeah. And that's one thing I wish - I hope other communities can realize. I think sometimes some communities are more - they take care of themselves, but this community is really, you know, wrapped their arms around each other and helped each other, and it's been great. So now - I see people now that I hadn't seen since the flood last year.

CONAN: Huh.

Ms. MILLER: And you run in to the same people. They're coming in to volunteer again. You see the people who are helping. We have, you know, bus drivers who take people to sites, you know, that come to registration areas. It's quite a setup. And so, you know, you see a lot of people who are working, too, in different positions that you haven't seen for the past year. So, yes, there are a lot of...

CONAN: You mentioned those meetings to get ready. I imagine you keep your eye on the weather forecast, too.

Ms. MILLER: Yep, that's right. And they've been doing forecasts on a regular basis, keeping an eye on what they feel is - you know, the problem is we get -depending on how fast the rivers melt, depending on ice jams, depending on how much extra - you know, last year, we had a big storm during the process, so we got extra. And we've been raining lately, so we're getting, of course, extra precipitation.

CONAN: Extra - yeah. Extra water sure doesn't help.

Ms. MILLER: (unintelligible) into it. They think they have a handle on it. You just never know, depending on current conditions.

CONAN: Well, good luck to you and...

Ms. MILLER: Well, we appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. You stay with us.

Ms. MILLER: Yep.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Ms. MILLER: Right.

CONAN: We were talking with Cindy Miller, executive director at First Link, an organization that helps cities and counties organize volunteer resources. And we'd like to hear from those of you with experience fighting floods, whether that's in the past and you've got some lessons to impart or whether you're doing it now in Long Island, in New Jersey, in Massachusetts, or out there in North Dakota and Minnesota, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Or send us an email: talk@npr.org. Let's start first with Peter, and Peter's with us from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

PETER (Caller): Good morning.

CONAN: Good morning. Good afternoon.

PETER: I finally got through to my carpenter. He said, sure. I'll get that tree out of your attic that's crashed through the roof at the height of a storm, just as soon as I get four feet of water out of my own basement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So, your carpenter has his priorities straight.

PETER: What I enjoyed, though, seeing is how we've created these real-time, electronic networks of who's got some pump, who's got drainage equipment, and they've been circulating through communities as fast as we can turn them over.

CONAN: What was that storm like? Was this, what, Saturday?

PETER: It started on Saturday, and it just kept coming down. There were some communities here in the - you know, around the Boston area, Charles River Basin that received over 10 inches of rain over two-and-a-half days.

CONAN: And on the one hand, that's bad. On the other hand, had it been a little colder...

PETER: Well, it is stocking the reservoir. It's full, if only to prevent droughts in August.

CONAN: Okay. Well, Peter, interestingly, you're talking about those community networks, so people can pass things like sump pumps around.

PETER: They've become as good as gold.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Good luck, Peter.

Let's go next to - this is Paul, and Paul's with us from Moorhead, Minnesota, just on the other side of the Red River from Fargo.

PAUL (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, Paul. What are you doing?

PAUL: Well, I just came off a sandbagging placement line this morning over on Elm Street in Old South Moorhead - my neighborhood, actually. And we were running a little short of volunteers this morning. We had one core group of about 50. And like the woman you just had on from Fargo was saying, everybody is getting kind of tired.

This is the second year at this for many people, and - but it's looking okay. I'm a geography professor over at Minnesota State Moorhead, and I keep very close track of the river. And it looks like all the tributaries are cresting in kind of a staggered form. So people are a little more optimistic. I think it's a lot less chaotic this year.

It's - we have more time to get things prepared, or things have been prepared -unlike last year, when everything had to be done immediately or we were going to have water coming in. We did get - my family did get flooded a little bit last year. We didn't get overnight flooding, but we have sewer back up in our house. The sewer system in our neighborhood was compromised.

CONAN: That's always fun, yeah.

PAUL: Oh, yeah. It was lots of fun.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PAUL: Fortunately, I have done several thousand dollars worth of drain tile and sump pump and sewer repair, and I'm pretty confident that I'm not going to get anything just go around, because we're also going to be about two-and-a-half feet lower on the crest. It's not going to be a record crest - at least that's what they're saying.

CONAN: Yeah, well, it's still going to be about what the old record was. So...

PAUL: It will - yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PAUL: It will be a big flood. There's no question. And we still do need volunteers. The problem with volunteers as one of our big sources - yes, we do have three universities - or three colleges in the area, but Minnesota State went on spring break this week. So - which is both good and bad. It means we have facilities available for volunteers from outstate, but we don't have the kids here. I have seen quite a few of them out - our kids.

CONAN: Let me see - read you this...

PAUL: Concordia has been out in force, too. So...

CONAN: Let me read you this email we got from Dan: I simply don't understand why the water levels in the Mississippi and Red Rivers, as well as others, cannot be lowered to allow for the rise expected. They lowered the level of Mississippi to recover cars that fell in when the I-35 West Bridge fell - that, of course, up in the Twin Cities. Yes, it will adversely affect traffic on the river, but nothing like the effect of flooding - proactive, rather than reactive. I was in Iowa for the floods of '08, now in Central Florida, but we'll flee before hurricane season starts.

Has anybody talked there about lowering the river level in advance for the flood?

PAUL: There's really no way you could do that here on the Red. We don't have reservoirs or lochs or anything like that to lower the water. And the thing that people really don't realize about the Red River of the North, this - we are in the bottom of an ancient glacial lake bed. It is flatter than a pool table here.

CONAN: I've been there, and you're right. It is very, very flat.

PAUL: It only slopes about 135 feet between here and the Canadian border, so that's not very much of a slope in that kind of distance. So it takes a long time for the water to get out of here.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. All right, Paul. Thanks very much for the advice. Appreciate it. Good luck to you.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about those involved in flood prevention and flood fights. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Caleb, Caleb with us from Iowa City.

CALEB (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Caleb. Go ahead, please.

CALEB: Hi. I was in Iowa City last summer when the Iowa River flooded down here, and it was, like, it was a pretty crazy experience. I was - I worked for the university's power plant, and I also was involved in a lot of, like, the volunteer sandbagging efforts.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CALEB: And you were asking about, like, about advice or something from people who've lived through it. And my biggest advice is that when you're building levees, especially with sandbags, be really careful and really make sure you know what you're doing, because a lot of the - actually, almost every sandbag levee that was built by volunteers down here just totally flooded through.

CONAN: Because it was poorly constructed?

CALEB: I don't really know. But the Army Corps of Engineers did build some with, like, some - they had these, like, things that they set up and they filled them with gravel. And we, like, wrapped plastic around them. And those works really well, and they kept water out of the power plant. But...

CONAN: Sandbags didn't do so much good.

CALEB: Yeah. It was kind of disappointing. But...

CONAN: We have a caller on another line, which I don't know the answers to, but you might. What Ken in Memphis, Tennessee, calls to ask: What happens to the sandbags afterwards?

CALEB: Oh, I have no idea. They were just all around town for a long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: They just hang around and eventually float downstream, or what?

CALEB: I guess they probably pick them up and, like, saved the sand and used it for other stuff. I don't know what happened to the sandbags. I remember seeing filled sandbags just around town all summer, like, in people's driveways and stuff.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And the sand itself probably gets scattered on the ice in the wintertime. So...

CALEB: Yeah.

CONAN: All right - if anybody have the answer to that question, give us a call or send us an email. Let us know. Thanks very much for the call, Caleb. And we hope this year is better for you.

Let's go next to Debbie, Debbie calling from Springfield.

DEBBIE (Caller): Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: I should say Springfield, Tennessee.

DEBBIE: Yes, sir.

CONAN: There's a lot of Springfields.

DEBBIE: Yes, sir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEBBIE: We'll I've been in Springfield - I'll be honest with you. I'll be 58 next month. But the '69 flood, I was raised in Minot, North Dakota. That's not too far from Fargo. And I am concerned right now. My mom is 74 now. And I do remember the '69 flood. I was 17. And we had, like, a two-story stucco house that she still has, amazingly. But it was entirely engulfed with what we call the mighty mouth. And that's the Red River. And covered - we were - we had to be evacuated up onto the upper northern part out by the Air Force Base. They have one of the largest bases in this country up there. And...

CONAN: I've been there. I've been to a missile silo up there.

DEBBIE: Right. There's a lot of missiles up there. I just hope nobody else in the world knows that, because they'll head right for North Dakota. But - you know, no, I remember. And it was very, very, very frightening. And they hauled in thousands and thousands of trailers. And we didn't get to go home for months and months. I mean, it was a long time. And I was talking to my mom recently about it. Now, she did tell me that Canada and North Dakota have combined efforts and somehow they've created a dam system. The biggest problem that creates these floods for the Dakotas is, of course, you have all the snow...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DEBBIE: ...and everything coming down from Canada. I can guarantee you, I'm better than any TV station on earth. All I got to do is talk to mom and I can tell you what's coming in three days down here. And that's the way it is. Everything comes from Canada. So what they're concerned about right now is, you know, she's got three, four feet of snow on her front yard, still.

CONAN: And that's going to be melting and heading downstream. Yeah.

DEBBIE: It's going to be melting, and that's what's creating a lot of his problem. There's so much snow this winter, and then this quick meltdown.

CONAN: All right. Debbie, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

DEBBIE: Well, I'm just praying for everybody because I've been there and done that. I'll leave you with one positive thing. We had an old cat. He survived that flood. And when it was all gone, we found him in a tree. He had climbed that tree for two-and-a-half months and survived.

CONAN: Good Lord.

DEBBIE: Yup.

CONAN: All right.

DEBBIE: Well, you have a good day and we'll be praying for everybody up there.

CONAN: Debbie, thanks very much for the thought.

DEBBIE: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's go quickly to Carrie, and Carrie's with us from Hailey, Idaho.

CARRIE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CARRIE: I was involved in a flood flight here in Hailey, Idaho, which is Sun Valley, Idaho.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CARRIE: As a county planner in charge of stream alteration permits, we had 175 year flood in 2006. And the sandbags end up at the bottom of the river.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The sand...

CARRIE: Or they get ripped apart and flushed downstream as sediment. So there is that, and that, of course, effects (unintelligible) you know, it's not normal...

CONAN: But these are made of burlap, right?

CARRIE: Pardon?

CONAN: These are made of burlap, so presumably biodegradable?

CARRIE: Well, yeah, but not all of them are. Some of them are plastic...

CONAN: Huh.

CARRIE: ...you know, mesh and that sort of thing. But probably, one of the best things that people can do to prevent, you know, flooding is not build or live in the flood plane. And, you know, avoid paving over areas where the - where, you know, or building where the flood needs to go.

CONAN: Good advice, Cindy(ph). Thank you very much. Excuse me, Carrie. Carrie calling us there on the line in Hailey in Sun Valley in Idaho.

Tomorrow, the United States and Israel now: Is at a passing spat, or is it a widening rift? We'll talk about that tomorrow in this hour. We'd also like to thank everybody who called and emailed us with their lessons about flooding.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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