The Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it has issued 14.6 million sandbags to control flooding along the Missouri River.
Assuming that each bag is the standard 26 inches long, 14.6 million sandbags placed end to end would reach from Omaha to Bulgaria.
Thousands of people in our area have been engaged in one of the world's most tedious and tiring volunteer jobs: pouring sand into bags, then placing those bags on other bags of sand.
What I have noticed is that nobody seems to be talking about an even more tedious, tiring and considerably more disgusting job:
Getting rid of all the sandbags once the flooding is over.
“We haven't even gone down that road yet,” said Jeff Theulen, coordinator of the Pottawattamie County Emergency Management Agency.
“When the time comes, we'll look at all options and formulate a plan,” said a spokeswoman for the State of Nebraska's flood-control efforts.
You know the old saying: What goes up must come down.
In the case of sandbags, though, there are complications. Bags and sand that have been in contact with floodwaters are considered, to various degrees, contaminated. (Omaha is pumping raw sewage into the river, after all.)
It is difficult to keep the bagged sand for some later flood. The bags degrade if left in the sun, and, if they're needed early in the year, could be too frozen to be useful.
“You're going to have a heck of a mess down there in a few months,” said Bryan Green, emergency manager for Clay County in Minnesota, which, with neighboring Fargo, N.D., has suffered three consecutive years of flooding along the notorious Red River. “You get pretty sick of all the sandbags pretty quickly.”
During flooding this spring, about 5 million sandbags were needed to hold back the Red River, he said.
“You can't just take the bags full of sand to your landfill,” he said. “Your landfill would end up just being a mountain of sandbags.”
Here's the reason I called Green to talk sandbags:
His office has what is likely the country's most ingenious and efficient method for getting rid of all those bags full of sand.
In 2009, community leaders teamed up with a nearby supplier of heavy industrial equipment to create a machine that could automatically separate sand from those millions of sandbags.
Employees at that company were successful in converting two trammel screen machines — large devices that, among other applications, sift rocks and other debris from dirt — by adding a series of rotating blades that chop up and remove the bag while the sand drops through the machine.
“We rebuilt it so it throws the bag out one side and the sand out the other,” said Kelly Wicks, the regional sales coordinator for Vermeer Sales and Service in Minnesota. “It turned out to be a pretty amazing device.”
“We built a site for the thing in 2009 and have rented it for a couple weeks each year,” he said. “You throw the sandbags in and you get a pile of shredded bags that go to the landfill and a pile of sand we use for road projects.”
The county rented the machine for about $10,000 a day. Those 5 million sandbags were processed in about a week, Green said.
Each year, because his region has been declared a disaster area, FEMA has paid for the cleanup, he said.
I couldn't help but try to play matchmaker.
“We don't make them, but we do have the parts we used and we do have one of the machines we revamped,” Wicks said.
So how quickly could you build one for us down here in Omaha and Council Bluffs?
“I guess by sometime in mid-July.”
He estimated the cost of the device to be about $180,000.
I suggested that we probably would prefer to rent with FEMA money, as the people along the Red River do.
“You'll need to have somebody call us,” Wicks said.
Uh … sort of out of my jurisdiction, I told him.
But maybe, I told him, he might get a call after those of us along the Missouri River get a look at the sandy mess we built to hold back the water.
“I can't even imagine how huge a job that'll be to clean up,” Wicks said. “However you do it, I wish you the best of luck. It's not going to be fun.”
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