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After the Deluge, the World in a Grain of Sand
Dismantling Flood Walls Poses a Weighty Problem

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008; C01

BUFFALO, Iowa, June 23 -- As a flood that has prompted horrible questions -- Will I lose my job, my home, my town? -- finally begins to subside in some towns, other niggling problems gnaw at those who live in areas of destruction. Such as: What do you do with all that sand?

In the disaster narrative that has gripped much of the heartland for two weeks, the mighty Mississippi and its tributaries are the relentless villains. The sandbag is the humble and elemental hero. Some 13 million of them were distributed by the states of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.

The sandbag has served the struggle. In photographs and news coverage, people tirelessly built great fortresses out of the bland, lumpen things, encircling houses and schools and businesses. In some places they are still helping out: , Mo., put out an urgent request Monday for an additional 50,000. But in other places the water has receded, the roads have opened and the sandbags are . . . still there. And now they sit, waterlogged and weightier than when first filled, smelling like mold and algae and dead fish.

Figuring out where to put them doesn't feel like healing or rebuilding, and doesn't make for much of a feel-good, community-building photo op. Getting rid of sandbags is one more (really) gritty detail in the bureaucratization of disaster, like getting your free tetanus shot, like filling out forms, like measuring how many inches the water was from the doorknob, because that could affect flood-damage classification.

In this town of 1,300 in the southeastern region of the state, neighbors who live near the stood outside late Sunday night and considered their sandbags. The bags sat in waist-high walls, stretching for blocks along Front Street and the neighborhoods of modest single-family homes behind it.

"I've got about 2,000," said Steven Mercer, a machinist. Empty bags and loose piles of sand were delivered by the city on June 13. Volunteers came from as far away as Texas, working three days straight to help fill them. At one point Mercer had two dozen people, many of them strangers, constructing a blockade of white bags, thick at the bottom and tapered at the top, beginning at the garage of his tan ranch house and meeting his neighbor's wall about 25 yards down.

A flooded garage, a wet basement and a lot of pumping later, Mercer's sandbags were ready to be taken down. Except, he said, "Nobody wants to come help move them." People just wouldn't think to volunteer, he explained. The adrenaline that fuels pre-flood preparation dissipates once the crisis is over. What seemed heroic last week is just mucking out and cleaning up this week.

Everything seems so much less dramatic once it's ending, except for the people still in it. News reports are saying that this flood wasn't as bad as '93, as if that makes the damaged homes less damaged and the sandbags just go away.

Mercer and his wife worked alone for eight hours to disassemble the wall. They got only a quarter of the way through. He's a big guy. Doesn't mind manual labor. But his back hurts, and those bags seem to keep multiplying. They lugged out the ruined workbenches and mangled swing set, too, before calling it a night.

"Taking all this [garbage] to the curb is the real hero part," Mercer said. It's not a long walk. Fifteen or 20 yards, maybe. But those bags weigh 60 or 80 pounds dry, and he doesn't even know how much wet.

"I hope the sand goes away soon," said Mindy Nettleton, who lives a few houses down and is sunburned from sandbagging and de-sandbagging. She's still got to finish cleaning the basement, and then she's back at her day job. "I'm just tired of looking at it."

Her bags are already on the curb; her family came over yesterday to pitch in. But she wants them gone, out of sight, away. If people get their bags to the curbs, the city will pick them up, says city council member Gina Guizar. The council has been reviewing waste removal bids and hoped to have a contract in place Tuesday. And then there's the matter of where the bags will go, because there are actually many possibilities.

"If sandbags are doing their jobs, then they're absorbing floodwater," said Kevin Baskins, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "Which includes fuels, chemicals and other bacteria." The Iowa DNR offers guidelines for proper sandbag disposal. For example, sand can be saved for covering winter roads or for spreading on spring gardens. It cannot be used to fill sandboxes or spread in playgrounds.

The DNR Web site is quite prescient about what sturdy and thrifty Midwesterners might want to do with their sand: "Bags still filled with sand should not be disposed of as rubble (e.g., in a ravine), but can be used for fill material under buildings, roads, parking lots, and so forth . . . it would be acceptable to reuse the sand for residents to spread on a backyard flower garden."

Or, Baskins says, people can save their uncontaminated filled sandbags for future floods, store them in sheds like flood paraphernalia.

Or, they can give the sand back to the sand quarries from around the state that provided it to begin with, though knowing where your sand came from seems like knowing which tree your apple came from.

So many decisions to be made about that horrible, lifesaving sand. One of a million things to navigate on the road to recovery, as everyone else keeps an eye out for new impending disasters. The only unavailable option is the one that exhausted, battered residents might like best: to bury their heads in that sand and hope everything goes away.

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