How it all began...

It was 2019 and for the second time in the three previous springs, the messaging was loud and clear. Communities along the overflowing St-Lawrence and Ottawa rivers were in need of volunteers to help with a variety of flood protection measures. One could not miss the images of homes, surrounded by deep water expand, streets literally turned into flowing rivers, and everyday people, desperately trying to protect their most valuable possessions. If they were lucky enough to still have power, they were running multiple pumps, 24 hours a day, bright hoses climbing out of their basement windows and doors. More common, though, exhausted homeowners with no power were desperately tossing buckets of water into the surrounding areas, which would inevitably make its way back into the basements, a futile make-work project if ever there was one. And hard to miss were the teams of people pushing shovels into piles of sand and filling bag after bag, tying them up and hauling them off to form one tiny part of a make-shift wall around one of the hundreds of homes at risk, this scene repeated in community after community.

While I had thought, from the comfort of my couch in my dry home, “I probably should go volunteer,” the thought of hauling around heavy bags with a back that had a history of going out on me under much less duress remained my excuse to stay put. Then when my wife suggested I go help, even if only for a couple of hours, I decided to give it a go and see if maybe I could be helpful after all.

A nearby community, asking for volunteers all over social media, was Pierrefonds, Québec, a suburb on the western end of the island of Montreal. I showed up at the promoted meeting place and public works staff sent those of us with shovels to one of 7 strategic “bagging” destinations. We were told we’d find a pile of sand, pile of bags, and tie wraps, and to join in making bags. Seemed simple enough. I grabbed another volunteer, hopped into my Jeep and drove to our destination, across from the riverfront and down a street lying in lowlands that were completely inundated. I noted 2 piles of sand, one sitting idle and the other had a couple of guys hunched over filling bags so we joined them,
basically doing what they were doing.

What I witnessed over the next several hours was heartwarming communal camaraderie, with all its good intentions, impacted by the challenges faced by city workers trying their best to combat the forces of nature with limited resources.

Despite the hard efforts that each and every volunteer brought to the task, it didn’t take long to see that getting large quantities of bags manually filled and delivered to where they were needed was a daunting task.

While the list below is far from comprehensive, I witnessed all of the following that day:

  • Activity stopped due to lack of bags.
  • Activity stopped due to lack of ties.
  • Empty bags being delivered and home owners grabbing stacks and taking them off site.
  • With no instruction, bags being under filled (not useful), or overfilled (too heavy for most to lift).
  • Various techniques used to fill bags, most resulting in the bags flopping over on themselves and requiring manual
    intervention to open them up to receive more sand (slow and back breaking).
  • Filled bags being left all around the sand pile, making it hardly accessible, even hazardous.
  • Individuals who just didn’t have the physical strength to do the work (a woman with a heart of gold and her two
    young daughters and an older gentleman with a bad limp and clearly very sore back come to mind). Their intentions
    were golden, but there surely are better suited tasks that they could assist with.
  • Various vans, pick-up truck, pull carts, etc. backing in to pick up bags but finding no system regarding who gets how
    many bags and how to get them loaded into the vehicles (the hardest physical work involved is to haul bags up into
    vehicles) leaving many standing by their trunks and staring at bags on the road, clearly wondering “now what?”
  • Overload at one sand pile (literally shovels clanging into each other) while the other sat empty.
  • Bags not tied tightly enough and bursting open when moved.
  • And, due to the above and other issues, including a lack of leadership and direction, volunteers seemingly getting
    tired or frustrated much sooner than expected and ultimately calling it a day, probably hours before originally
    intended (and unlikely to return).

As I soaked all this in, I did my best to fill as many bags as possible. I developed a “foot at bottom and hand at top to hold bag open and kind of scooping the sand in” technique that worked well, required less lifting and filled bags quickly. I noted several others copying my technique and remember thinking, “I guess it was worth coming by today if for that alone! “

But there was one line that I found myself repeating in my mind over and over and over:

“There has got to be a better way!”

I left there feeling pretty good about having helped out, and despite hauling around dozens of bags, my back survived the challenge. But I also felt this urge to look into what other options might be available to these besieged communities (as it would now seem that this “one in a hundred years” flooding, as it was called in 2017, only to repeat in 2019, just might become the new normal).

It didn’t take long to find that there were indeed a few companies making various types of sandbagging machinery, but they appeared to be only US based, leaving the Canadian marketplace completely under-served. So, it made sense that the sandbagging process here remained so manual. But why should it remain this way? This question burned a hole in my head.

About a week later, maybe serendipitously, I was listening to the radio and the host was interviewing a man from Illinois who made exactly these machines and not finding much traction in Canada. His name was Tim, his company “The Sandbagger,” and he sounded like he could use a more local strategy to penetrate our huge market. I knew our
marketplace could certainly use his machines!

Looking at his web site, I immediately recognized it as the one that I saw repeatedly during my research. He offered US-made quality machines with 2, 3 or 4 chutes (openings) for multi bag filling, and 2 operating types: gravity fed (requires some assistance to keep sand flowing down the hopper to the chutes), and motorised (using a rotating auger that spins the sand and keeps it flowing down to the chutes). So, they had covered all price points and all output requirements. The machines are portable so whether a community prefers to have one central location with lots of sand where bags are made/stocked and ready to deliver/pick up, or to set up multiple bag “stations”, as Pierrefonds did, the flexibility is there. The machines, operated with one single crew of 3 to 5 people, could output from 900 bags to over 1600 bags PER HOUR! By comparison, in my experience volunteering that day, I was making about 60 bags/hr on my own. So 5 of us, going non-stop at the same output level, could never make more than 300 bags an hour. What do I think was actually being output by 5 typical volunteers though? I’d say between 100 and 200 bags per hour. And certainly NOT all day long. The argument for such a machine was clearly compelling, and I was convinced that we needed these in Canada, badly.

Fast forward about 4 months, I had an agreement in place to represent the Sandbagger equipment in the Canadian market, had launched a .ca website to offer the products to Canadians (www.creatium.ca) and began plans to market this solution to the many hundreds of water bordering communities in this country. A few months later, marketing has begun, a sales rep has been hired and hundreds of Quebec and Ontario communities have been contacted already, with Manitoba next.

Based on the reactions so far, it would seem that communities are paying attention. They often don’t even know such equipment exists so we are in the introduction phase and curiosity is high. In fact our first Sandbagger 4-chute automated machine was delivered to the town of Val des Monts, Quebec, just recently. The challenge for communities is of course the red tape involved in getting approval for the purchase of new equipment such as this, while recognizing that such an order cannot be deferred to March or April, smack in the middle of the flooding season. We are hopeful that the more proactive communities recognize this and place orders in January and February in order to have their machines on hand at the first sign of spring flooding. A small crew of 5, a big pile of sand, and they can count on cranking out over 10,000 sand bags on DAY ONE alone!

In the US, I hear stories of communities literally cheering at the sight of these machines being dropped off in flood zones. Having seen what their experience likely was before having a Sandbagger machine at their disposal, I can clearly see why that would be.

I’d be cheering too.

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