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Published December 24 2010

Sandbagging made a little easier

It was a simple idea, born out of necessity during the 1997 flood: two oversized funnels set side by side, designed for filling sandbags in rapid fashion.

The earliest prototypes were jury-rigged with dog-food bowls and inverted traffic cones. The inventors’ attorney said the concept – derived from a Federal Emergency Management Agency suggestion – was too basic to patent.

But more than a decade after its conception in a Fargo backyard against a backdrop of the rising Red River, the Express Bagger – essentially a plastic stand designed to turn three-person teams into sandbag-producing dynamos – is starting to catch on.

The contraption was developed by North Dakota businessman David Holand and Ron Stone of Craigmont, Idaho. The idea first came around when Holand, who was in Fargo during a flood that required millions of sandbags, saw firsthand the inefficiencies of the traditional methods of filling sandbags.

By his reckoning, the standard approach – one person holds the bag open while another shovels in sand – fills about two bags a minute in back-wrenching fashion. The Express Bagger, which lets shovelers dump sand into one of two troughs and down into a waiting bag, can fill about 10. It weighs less than 10 pounds and costs about $100 a unit. Throw in some makeshift seating and create a rotation, Holand says, and the process is sustainable for hours on end.

“The whole idea is to get as many sandbags as you can, as quickly as you can,” he said.

It took a few years to draft a device unique enough to patent and 10 more to find a manufacturing solution that didn’t require prohibitively expensive plastic molds. But when an Express Bagger prototype showed up at the Fargodome in the run-up to the 2009 flood, volunteers lined up – and in some cases nearly fought – to use it.

Holand says he knew the Express Bagger was a hit when he saw a man in a wheelchair using it.

Since then, the device has drawn interest from flood-threatened areas around the nation. The city of Fargo bought 120 last year. Holand says it’s especially attractive for smaller communities, which can use it to multiply their sandbagging capabilities for an investment of a few thousand dollars.

In August, Cooperstown, N.D., business incubator Prairie Authority acquired an ownership stake in the company. Scott Lindemann, the chief executive of Prairie Authority and now the president of Express Bagger, said the company is looking at starting a manufacturing plant for the device in Cooperstown in the next few years.

Lindemann, a North Dakota native, said the opportunity to help fight flooding locally made the product all the more attractive.

But Holand says the goal isn’t to profit from water disasters. Instead, the company is looking to sell to the construction industry and the military, which together account for the vast majority of the sandbag market.

“We don’t want to chase floods,” he said. “We don’t want to be getting the call saying, ‘We needed these yesterday.’ ”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502