Flood Diaries: One volunteer’s story

Kevan Rehm of Brooklyn Park drove to the Fargo Moorhead area this week to help out. He’s like dozens — perhaps hundreds — of Twin Citians who are here. Just walking through the motel lobby a few minutes ago, the lobby is thick with men from the Twin Cities in workclothes and muddy boots, who’ve been working all night, some of them telling tales of running heavy equipment and sliding off the dikes.

Kevan sent us a detailed account of his experience. Here is his story.

(Update — Kevan was later on MPR’s All Things Considered. )

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I drove up yesterday evening and stayed at the Super 8 in north Fargo, just a mile or so from the FargoDome. They had a 15 to 20 % discount for sandbaggers. Every guest in the place had on work clothes. ๐Ÿ™‚

I arrived at 9:30 PM and worked 10 PM until 2 AM last night. My first sight was walking into the FargoDome. When you were a kid, did you ever kick open an ant hill? Suddenly the entire ground seems to be alive with constant motion as the ants are moving every which way. Well, that was the FargoDome.

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They took out the floor and started dumping huge piles of sand everywhere. Around each sand pile was a dozen or more people filling sandbags, tying them off, and stacking them on pallets. Bobcats are whizzing around picking up full pallets and bringing back empty ones. Large bulldozers would rebuild the sand piles (5 feet high) each time that people would just be about done shoveling up the previous one. It was organized chaos; how you could have that many moving people and equipment and not have anyone run over, I’ll never know.

Today when I went back and counted, there were 14 separate sand piles being processed by volunteers at the same time, with Bobcats and bulldozers flying around in between.

kevan_2.jpg I got on the bus and went to Sandbag Central. They had three sand spiders working there. Each is a conveyor belt taking sand up high, then dumping it into the top of a cone shape which is really ten connected pipes each about 8 inches in diameter. The pipes are connected at the top, and flare out as they go down. At the bottom of each pipe, a person has a bag over the bottom of the pipe. When his bag is full, he pulls it off and his partner slips on the next bag. The sand coming down these pipes is continuous, so you can’t stop. A third person or fourth person ties the sacks as they get them from the fillers. Other folks take the tied sacks and either pass them down a line to a truck or stack them on pallets. Each pipe needs about 5 people to manage it, and there’s about 10 pipes per sand spider, and they had three spiders, so that’s 150 people just to keep those three machines going.

In addition to the spiders, there are the piles everywhere where people are filling sacks with shovels. After an hour on the spider I switched to the sand piles because it’s much more dynamic. If someone gets behind on filling sacks or tying sacks, someone else can switch jobs and help take up the slack. In the four hours I was there, you never stop.

The Red Cross is there with plenty of food. They even had scalloped potatoes with ham in heated trays. Does that count as hot dish? ๐Ÿ™‚ You certainly wouldn’t starve there.

People were amazing. Everyone wanted to work. If something would start to bog down, someone would notice and say “I’ll take this” and deal with it. If the line for passing sacks from fillers to pallets got a little long, someone would step into the line and help pass. Nobody stood around; everyone jumped in and helped.

I can’t tell you how many times someone thanked me for coming to help. You work with someone on the line, they don’t know you’re not a local, but as you start to leave, they turn and say “Thanks for coming to help”. It’s times like this that I know why I live in the Midwest, in spite of the weather. ๐Ÿ™‚ I feel like these people are my neighbors. They’re not my next-door neighbors, but they’re my neighbors. ๐Ÿ™‚

kevan_3.jpgAt two AM I went back to the hotel and crashed, woke up at 9 AM, checked out, and went back for another four hour shift from 10 AM to 2 PM. I had hoped to work the dikes today, but I ended up at Sandbag Central again. They have folks on the radio constantly, including the bus drivers, so if people start to leave at Sandbag Central, they know immediately and send the next bus load of people there to replace them.

Today I learned how to tie the sacks shut. (Last night I spent all 4 hours piling sacks on pallets.) It turns out that the way you tie off a sandbag is the same way that you tie rebar at construction sites. I told my line partner that I’m prepared for a new career in construction in case I get laid off in my current job.

Two people can fill a sack in 15 seconds easily, usually less. Another person can tie off sacks and keep up with a pair of fillers. Another person can probably handle the output of two people tying sacks, filling the pallets with the tied sacks. If I’m doing my math correctly, that means two teams of fillers, or 7 people total can do about a thousand sacks per hour. There are at least two of these sets of people per sand pile. Just awesome.

I worked until two PM today, then decided it was time to go home. I felt guilty, but the hotel didn’t have Internet, so I couldn’t log in and work during the off hours, so I needed to get back to my day job. Still, I am really glad that I went. I met a lot of great, hard-working people, who have obviously been doing this day after day after day, and they are still cheery. I hope others keep coming into town to help them out. They need to keep up today’s rate all the way through to Saturday if they are going to make it. Tell everyone to come and help!

  • Correcting my own math error. ๐Ÿ™ Seven people can produce 500

    sandbags per hour if they’re going at full speed, not a thousand.

  • Hannah

    Awesome, Kevan!

    I drove up Monday night and sandbagged all day yesterday – I had to come back to work today (I don’t have vacation time yet so anytime I take off is unpaid and as a recent graduate, I just can’t afford that) and even though I’m incredibly exhausted and sore, I still wish I could be back up there today.

  • Minn Whaler

    Great story. Wish it didn’t take a disaster for people to work together toward a common goal without knowing or caring what their politics, religion are, what economic “strata” they live in, etc.

  • Bill from International Falls

    Does anyone know if communities on the Red River or Red Lake River will need the help of my family this upcoming weekend?

    If so, do we just drive over or do we need to contact somebody before we leave?

  • Hannah

    Bill – you can contact the F/M volunteer hotline at (701) 476-4000.

  • Lynn Gifford

    Thank all of you 2,000,000 times! – once for each sandbag so far and more for the ones to come. Kevan’s report made me cry. I have lived in Fargo for over 35 years. I was here in 1997 and I spent my days cooking for volunteers. They’re not letting us cook and donate from our home kitchens this time and I am retired on disability so no sandbagging. I hope I can at least donate blood. I am so proud of our young folks. Their parents did this in 1997 and they’re doing the same in 2009.

    Bless you all. Lynn Gifford