Corps’ automatic sandbagger is game changer in flood fights

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is raising the bar for disaster response and touting its latest asset — automatic sandbagging machines, which can fill up to 1,000 sandbags per hour, drastically increasing efficiency when it’s needed the most.

“The automatic sandbagging machine has proven valuable in multiple flood fights over the last year and is now considered the new standard,” said USACE Louisville District Emergency Manager George Minges, whose office is becoming a center of expertise on the new tool. 

The Louisville District deployed a team of six people in support of the flood fighting efforts along the Arkansas River in late May where the machine was used to fill more than 56,200 sandbags over the course of two weeks. 

The concept was the brain-child of the Kansas City District Emergency Management Office as they saw the need for faster, more efficient sandbag-filling operations, years ago and worked with Express Scale Parts and Manufacturing out of Lenexa, Kansas to use their existing portable bagging technology to build a trailer-mounted sandbag machine. 

USACE now has an inventory of 13 machines across the country that can be deployed quickly in an emergency upon request according to Minges. 

“The state emergency operations center or any Corps of Engineers district can request them through the National Flood Fight Materials Center in Rock Island, Illinois,” Minges said. 

The Louisville District’s machine has already expended more than 100,000 sandbags after its latest mission in Arkansas. It was the first off the production line and deployed immediately in September 2018 to support flood fighting efforts in South Carolina after Hurricane Florence.

“By happenstance Hurricane Florence was targeting the East Coast when the National Flood Fight Material Center got a request for our assistance,” Minges said. 
In only a few short days it was used to fill 25,000 sandbags to protect areas like Conway, Georgetown and Pawley’s Island in South Carolina.

“This machine allows us to better support our partner agencies because we are able to respond faster and more efficiently,” Minges said. “We can fill more sandbags with fewer people. It greatly increases our emergency response posture.”

The sandbag machine is completely self-contained only requiring sand, sandbags, fuel and two operators making it extremely cost-effective and efficient. The entire bag-filling process takes less than 5 seconds.  

“Using four to six guys you can get the same amount of bags filled in an hour as it would take 20 guys filling them with shovels,” Minges said. “It’s not nearly as labor intensive so you don’t fatigue the workers as bad.” 

The automatic sandbagging machine was a game changer in the February 2019 flooding in Smithland, Kentucky. There, along the sprawling riverbank, were crews of up to 100 people pitching in to fill sandbags in hopes of holding back the mighty Ohio River. When the Corps arrived with the new sandbagging machine in tow it was a welcomed sight.

“It’s a wonderful tool – it’s like a rolling billboard when we show up to flood fights,” Minges said. “They know the Corps is there.” 

In February 2019 the machine proved invaluable in the flood fighting efforts in Smithland and farther south in Jamestown, Kentucky. in support of the Nashville District where it was used to fill 25,000 bags. In both events the machine filled sandbags to provide extra support for the construction of temporary gabion baskets and geocell structures.

“When you couple them together the time it takes to build something just goes down exponentially,” Minges said. “There is always going to be a need for sandbags to wrap corners and things like that on the barriers, and this makes it all so much faster.”

Because of the Louisville District’s flood fighting expertise they have been named as the proponent to train other districts across the region.

Minges and Andrew Fleming, emergency management specialists, who are relied on across the region for their expertise, have conducted operator trainings for the Rock Island, Detroit and Baltimore districts in addition to numerous trainings for state and local responders throughout Indiana and Kentucky. During the Arkansas flood fight the team delivered just-in-time classroom training on flood fighting tactics and techniques for Little Rock District personnel. 

Louisville District Emergency Management staff assisted in the completion of a field guide, which will be printed by the USACE Readiness and Support Center in Mobile, Alabama to be pushed across USACE on how to operate the machines.

“We are happy to share our expertise to better the enterprise as a whole and raise the bar for USACE flood fighting responses,” Minges said.