Fargo volunteers hit sandbag assembly lines to thwart potential floods

March 09, 2019

U.S. Bank employees used paid volunteer time off to lend a hand in their community.

The residents of Fargo, North Dakota, know about flooding. The Red River, which divides Fargo from Moorhead, Minnesota, often floods in the spring – and this year it had the potential for historic flooding.

The National Weather Service began issuing flood warnings in March, saying the Red River had a 90 percent chance of hitting major flood stage by mid-April, because of above-average winter snowfall, early spring storms and a late thaw that could bring a fast snowmelt.

After those warnings, U.S. Bank’s Fargo Development Network, which organizes local employee volunteer efforts, kicked into high gear. They knew the city would need sandbags, so they called the mayor’s office asking how they could help.

“The city said we were the first people to call looking to help, before they had even completely planned out what they were going to do,” said Kristine Holm, a vice president of the Fargo Development Network. 

Within a week, Holm and Benny Andres, also a vice president of the Fargo Development Network, had coordinated 132 employees, or about 10% of U.S. Bank’s workforce in the area, to join 3,000-plus volunteers and city employees on a mission to fill 1 million sandbags.

“This was the quickest volunteer turnaround I’ve ever seen. It was a really good, collaborative effort on so many levels,” Holm said.

To encourage community involvement, U.S. Bank makes volunteering easier for employees by giving 16 hours of paid time off to volunteer each year.

Fortunately for Fargo, the city experienced a gradual snowmelt, so the major flood threat for the city is over. Some rural areas of the state near the river, however, have experienced flooding.

Either way, the city that has been through so many floods was ready. U.S. Bank volunteers, many from the bank’s Fargo customer service center, volunteered on two of the four nights the city was operating “Sandbag Central” between March 26 and March 29.

It’s not easy work. Minnesota Public Radio described Sandbag Central – in a warehouse north of downtown Fargo – as a “beehive” buzzing with people and two giant “Spider” machines, each with 12 metal pipes in a circle pointed toward the floor and a conveyor that drops sand down each pipe every 6 seconds.

At the end of each pipe is a “mini assembly line,” with four people tasked with filling and moving the 20- to 25-pound bags every few seconds. The first person fills a bag and passes it to the next person, who spins the bag shut and passes it to the third person, who uses a wire gun to tie-close the bags and hands it to the fourth person, who puts it on a waiting pallet.

Liz Eisert, communications manager at the Fargo customer service center, was on “sandbag delivery” duty when she volunteered, which meant a lot of running around, making sure each assembly table had bags.

The constant dropping of sand from the conveyor belts and need for complete focus on the assembly line reminded her of the chocolate factory scene in “I Love Lucy,” where Lucy and Ethel can’t keep up with the chocolates on the belt. 

“The sand just kept coming and coming. It was a humbling experience for me,” Eisert said. “I didn’t realize the scale of the operations, or how much effort goes into getting volunteers.”

Andres, who helped organize the volunteer efforts, spent time on the sandbag assembly line, and said it was amazing to see so many U.S. Bank employees come together so quickly to help their community.

“I was so proud to see so many U.S. Bank employees being part of something bigger than us,” he said. “Helping our community in a time of need is clearly in the hearts and minds of many employees.”

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