A Day on the Sandbag Brigade

ST. LOUIS, Mo. It's 6 a.m. Saturday. Our family would normally be waking up and preparing for a day of boating on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. But not this summer. This is the summer of the "flood of the century." The harbor where we keep our boat is completely underwater.

I turn on the TV for the latest update. Volunteers have been building sandbag walls through the night in an effort keep the rising rivers from destroying homes and businesses. A plea is made for donations to the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, which are supplying food and shelter to the thousands of flood victims in our area. More volunteers are needed for the sandbag brigades.

I call the emergency number for flood relief in St. Charles County and get directions to the city garage. We dress in shorts and T-shirts, hats, and suntan lotion. We have a date with a sandpile.

Leaving home and high ground, we head several miles north. As we drive across the bridge spanning the Missouri River, the tops of the trees along the banks look like shrubs floating in the water.

We park our car several blocks from the river, where the only signs of the nearby flood are small circles of sandbags stacked several feet high around storm sewer drains. We go inside a large Red Cross shed to sign in. There are already about 10 names on today's list of volunteers. Outside, a truck has backed up to a good-sized sandpile. Open sandbags are waiting to be loaded. We hurry to join the others who are toting bags of sand and heaving them up onto the tailgate.

Within minutes, a man with a walkie-talkie arrives and rearranges us into an efficient line, a sandbag brigade passing bags from one person to the next. We discover that passing sandbags is much easier than lifting and walking with them.

The truck pulls away fully loaded, and we pair off around the sandpile. One partner stoops or kneels, holding the plastic bag open, while the other partner shovels 2-1/2 shovelsfull of sand into it. We're told not to tie them because they stack better untied.

My first partner, Dave, has come from Scott Air Force Base, an hour and a half away. We chat amiably as we work, switching jobs from time to time to rest complaining muscles.

More sand arrives on a huge dump truck. We move bales of empty sandbags out of the way and stand back to admire the height of the truck and the amount of sand it dumps. Another truck backs up, and we form a line again, showing newcomers how to pass the bags as if we had been doing it for years. The bags move rhythmically from hand to hand. A grunt or groan from the person next to you signals an extra-heavy one approaching. You listen for the relieved laughter signaling an unexpectedly light one.

More volunteers appear: a family on vacation from California; a group of Marines from boot camp, dressed in their fatigues; a church youth group whose weekend canoe trip has been canceled.

The heat rises from the sandy pavement, and skin glistens in the humid air. A radio with driving rock music livens the pace. The Salvation Army emergency kitchen dispenses an endless stream of ice water, soda, lemonade.

No less than eight loads of sand expand our sandpile as the morning wears on, despite our continuing efforts to shrink it. The marines are called away to the nearby levee to unload the sandbags that we keep producing.

It's 94 degrees in the shade, but there is no shade. In the early afternoon we hear a call for more volunteers at the levee. We climb into a shuttle bus and gratefully sit for the five-minute ride. A short walk takes us across a park with some standing water and then up to the levee.

We have seen the flood pictures on TV, but we're still unprepared for what's in front of us. The swiftly moving muddy river is just six inches from the top of the levee. Houses between the levee and the river are inundated by several feet of water. A boat moves by, carrying two people to their front porch. A dog locked in a trailer surrounded by rising water is barking.

We turn back to the task at hand. There are many more houses and businesses behind the levee to protect. Sandbags from the back of a truck start moving through the sandbag brigade and over a swampy area where the river is seeping through the earthen levee.

We pass the bags on down the white snake of a sandbag wall that stretches in both directions along the top of the levee as far as the eye can see. The river is predicted to crest 1-1/2 feet higher than it is right now. We are reinforcing the wall and building it up one more layer. The last person in the line folds the end of each bag under and adds it to the countless thousands already there.

Backs and arms ache; eyes blur with sweat; mouths are dry. Reach to the right, pass to the left. Reach, pass. An engineer walks by checking the oozing levee and directing our efforts. At last we are told our work is completed for the moment. We head for the Red Cross truck that has just arrived with cans of juice and sandwiches. Time to head back to high ground and some shade!

This kind of massive effort involving a couple hundred people has been repeated today hundreds of times up and down hundreds of miles of swollen rivers. Late in the evening we see TV pictures of volunteers watching their levees give way and their sandbags disappear in the churning water. "Our" levee continues to hold, but we hear that three more inches of rain have fallen upstream at Kansas City.

Tomorrow we'll see where the next sandbag brigade is needed.

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