Sandbaggers work to hold back Missouri


June 24th, 2011

Council Bluffs, IA – Council Bluffs is just one of many cities bracing for high water along a bulging Missouri River. And just like those other communities, volunteers are busy filling sandbags to be placed in strategic locations throughout the city. In Council Bluffs, they’re filling 500,000 bags with sand, enough to build a dike three feet high, six feet wide and a little more than a mile long.

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Some places in town are already lost to the river. Next to the Dodge Riverside Golf Club, the north entrance to Harrah’s casino is underwater. On Tuesday, casino workers were fashioning a siphon system to begin pumping out water. A few feet away, the Mighty Mo churns downstream at a flow rate of 150,000 cubic feet per second.

Jeff Masters is the director of meteorology for Weather Underground. He says that’s 1.5 times greater than the typical flow of Niagara Falls.

Sandbags set on pallets in Harrah's Casino parking lot in Council Bluffs. (Photo by Jonathan Ash)

Outside the Mid-America Center, dozens of volunteers continue bagging sand. On Tuesday, they included groups from Boys Town, Mennonites from Colona, Iowa, and high school students from Omaha’s Westside Church.

Troy Pederson is the Parks and Public Property supervisor for the Council Bluffs Park and Recreation Department. He said the pallets of sandbags aren’t for one specific location in town; they’re more of an emergency stash in the event something goes wrong.

“The county of Pottawattamie has come down and loaded up several pallets of bags, as well,” Pederson said. “So it’s more or less a joint effort between county and city personnel.”

Harrah's north entrance remains underwater. (Photo by Jonathan Ash)

Peggy Porter is from Elm Creek, Neb.; Vicki Haligan is from Cozad. Both are Red Cross volunteers. Tuesday morning they were packing up an ERV to head back to Central Nebraska.

“Normally when we’re out on any big disaster, we’ve got these hot containers and we’ll work like a Southern Baptist kitchen and we’ll serve a three or four-course hot meal,” Haligan said. “Right now we’re not at that need, to that point where there are that many people displaced. So that’s why the canteening or snacks, it’s to keep them – if they’re sandbagging or something – we’re just there to keep them refreshed and give them a little nourishment.”

As with any relief effort, the needs are many and daunting. No organization can provide all the relief required. That’s why partnerships are created between the Red Cross and other relief-oriented organizations like the United Way and Salvation Army.

Volunteers work to fill and stack sandbags (Photo by Jonathan Ash)

“With the flood, you have this idea of just, Keep waiting, something will happen,'” said Lieutenant Brad Burkett. “And that’s how it feels for a lot of people. And so I think a lot of the people being evacuated or (with) the potential of being evacuated really don’t know what to do, because it’s a unique situation.”

Also at the Mid-America Center, the American Red Cross has an Emergency Response Vehicle – or ERV – providing relief to the sandbaggers. The Red Cross calls it canteening: the truck is stocked with snacks and drinks to help refresh the hardworking volunteers.

Amid the flooding relief effort, Tuesday night’s storms packed with 70-mile-per-hour straight-line winds created more need for Red Cross assistance.

“The whole spring’s been busy for the Red Cross, and we’re just trying to keep up with all these storms,” said Danelle Schlegelmilch, Red Cross public affairs manager for the Missouri flooding disaster operation. “So we’re not only helping people affected by flooding, but these windstorms and tornadoes and everything else in-between.”

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