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Published May 12 2010

Unused Fargo sandbags exposed to elements

About 350,000 unused sandbags left over from Fargo’s flood fight have been sitting outside for a month, exposed to the elements – including ultraviolet rays that break down the plastic bags – as the city waits for clearance to use storage buildings.

It’s unknown how many bags have deteriorated, or how far, said Terry Ludlum, the city’s solid waste utility manager.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.

However, because the pallets are double stacked, only the top layer – about 17,000 sandbags total – should be exposed to UV rays, he said.

Ludlum said he hopes to have the bags moved indoors by the end of May.

During the ramp-up to the spring flood fight, the city rented sandbag storage space on a month-by-month basis in a warehouse next to the parking lot where the bags now sit, along 28th Street about one block south of Main Avenue, behind TNT Kid’s Fitness and Gymnastics Academy.

By the time the city decided to launch a pilot project to store unused sandbags long term, a company had already secured a yearlong lease on the warehouse, Ludlum said. The city had to vacate the space by April 15.

The city is now waiting for structural analysis on two warehouses, at 909 25th St. N. and next to Savers on 38th Street South, he said.

Officials want to ensure the buildings can support the sandbags’ weight, especially after a March 1 mishap in which about 5,000 stored sandbags crashed through the floor of the old Sugar Sand Marine building at 2600 3rd Ave. N.

“We want to make sure that never happens again,” Ludlum said.

If the city can’t secure heated indoor storage, the sandbags will be hauled to the old landfill and covered. If necessary, they’ll be hauled inside to thaw before flooding begins next year, Ludlum said.

Contrary to popular belief, Ludlum said, it’s UV rays, not moisture, that causes the bags to break down. How long that takes isn’t known, he said.

“As much as we’ve tried to research it, we can’t find anywhere or anybody that will give you any type of quality assurance on the life of a sandbag,” he said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker recalled that after the flood of 1997, some leftover sandbags that had been sitting outside for three or four weeks were hauled to the Red River Valley Fairgrounds.

“All the ones on the top, they couldn’t hold sand,” he said. “You just touched them and they fell apart.”

When asked about the sandbags currently sitting outside, Walaker said, “I don’t know anything about it,” and referred questions to city Enterprise Director Bruce Grubb. Walaker is the City Commission’s liaison to the Enterprise Department and was Fargo Public Works director for 17 years before being elected mayor in 2006.

A message left for Grubb was returned by Ludlum.

In addition to the 350,000 bags, Ludlum said the city also has 20,000 shrink-wrapped pallets of filled sandbags outside its solid waste building. The bags, which were reserved for emergency response teams, will be stored with the 350,000 bags, he said.

Ludlum stressed that long-term sandbag storage is a pilot project. He said if some bags have deteriorated, the city can still recover the sand, which is the biggest investment.

“So, really, the only cost that we’re out is probably the bag itself and the time for the volunteers to put sand in the bags,” he said.

Ludlum said the core function of the volunteer effort was to save the city from flooding, and that was accomplished. About 700,000 bags were used during the flood fight.

“I think the important message to put out is all of their work went towards then saving the city from the seventh-highest recorded flood in history,” he said. “And if there were bags that were not utilized, and that we’re in the middle of a pilot project to see if they can be reused, I don’t think any of their efforts were wasted.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528