Mr. Sandman

In addition to the seasonal artillery of backhoes, plows and mulchers, flood-prone cities like Winnipeg cannot do without the addition of its latest contraption. Even though it will sit dormant most of the year, and in some years may not be used at all, it is worth its weight in gold when the floodwaters rise.

This spring, the media was swamped with stories of Manitobans building sandbag walls along many of the province’s swelling rivers. A combination of a heavy winter, ice jams and supersaturated soil caused rivers like the Red to rise to some of the highest levels on record. Over the last three years, the provincial government has been increasing the capacity of Winnipeg’s diversion floodway in preparation for extreme conditions like this spring’s flood. Despite these efforts, sandbagging still plays a critical part in damage prevention.

On April 16, a state of emergency was announced in parts of Winnipeg where 600 volunteers were called out the following day to sandbag along parts of the Red River. And if that seems like a big number, consider this: when a flood of this magnitude recedes and the clean-up begins, local estimates have it that there will be a staggering 80 million kilograms of sand to be removed from Winnipeg’s riverbanks. At approximately 16 kilograms per bag, that amounts to five million bags of sand, or seven bags for every Winnipegger. Considering the number of bags required, it is nearly impossible to picture the size of the volunteer army required to fill each of those bags by shovel.

While people better than me were out protecting neighbours’ homes, I spent an afternoon with Guy Bergeron and his wife Ria. Bergeron is the inventor of the Sandbagger and is somewhat of a local hero. “Shovel by shovel, bag by bag. That’s how they used to do it,” Bergeron told me. At 79, he is supposed to be retired, but since 1997–six years after open heart surgery and selling his gravel-hauling business–he has been manufacturing and selling a 3.5-metre-tall collapsible, mobile contraption that can fill 5 to 6,000 bags of sand an hour. He made the first ones himself and now has them manufactured in a shop, but Guy and Ria insist on delivering the Sandbagger in person off the backs of their own trucks. When I met them, they had just returned from North Dakota.

Mounted permanently on a trailer, the Sandbagger arrives on location behind Bergeron’s truck. Its flexibility and size enables it to be used inside a warehouse or on site, as long as a source of power and a conveyor crane are nearby. Within half an hour, two people can have the contraption unfolded and standing vertically on the trailer. Twelve steel chutes splay out from a funnel at the top that has a small rotating cowl to spread sand equally into the chutes. With the pace of the cowl properly adjusted, and the sizes of the openings accurately measured, the Sandbagger drops an exact amount of sand into each bag waiting at the bottom of the chute. One volunteer pulls the bag away to tie it up while another volunteer steps in with a fresh bag just in time to meet the full rotation. When you do the math and get all the volunteers in sync, the Sandbagger is filling 1.5 bags per second.

The made-in-Manitoba Sandbagger is about the cost of a mid-size automobile and has been sold all across North America. Flood-prone cities have learned that time is of the essence in a flood situation. The Bergerons believe that if speeding up the process relieves even one family of the emotional and physical damage caused by a house submerged in floodwater, the Sandbagger has paid for itself.

Peter Sampson is an architect in Winnipeg and teaches at the University of Manitoba.