HARTSBURG — I’m holding up the line, and the number of bags, half-filled with sand, is multiplying behind me.
Clad in leather gloves, my hands fumble to cinch the mouth of each one shut with a rusted tie. My burden only grows when another three bags are placed before me.
“These aren’t tight enough,” 19-year-old Lance Butler, a wiry volunteer from Ashland, tells me. “You have to retie them. We can’t have them bursting open when we’re trying to put them in place.”
Looking out from the levee protecting pancake-flat fields with slight corn stalks piercing their surface, I wonder what have I gotten myself into.
At 10 in the morning Wednesday in Hartsburg, the rudimentary process of manufacturing sandbags is in full swing. If done properly, the bags will serve as the brick and mortar of a wall meant to stave off the rising waters of the Missouri River, which are threatening to wash over this town 20 miles south of Columbia.
The job of the volunteers is a mixture of menial labor and engineering on the fly. The physical act of making the bag is easy. That is, until you realize that it must survive being stacked on pallets, picked up by a front-loader, hauled a mile, then dropped in place as part of a makeshift dike.
Moreover, the pace of the work is a finely tuned balance between speed and diligence. You’re working against the clock, but the effort is a waste if the dam is poorly built.
I learned that lesson quickly. After arriving at the Peace United Church of Christ, my group of four had managed to fill 60 bags in the first hour. The pace soon proved too much for us to handle.
“You’re falling behind,” said Ethan Anderson, 16, as he stood waiting for friend Caleb O’Keefe, 15, to hand him one of three bags he was tying off.
“I think we can back it down a little bit,” Holly Greimann, 19, tells me as I leaned against my shovel. “Sometimes we’re putting half as much sand on the ground as we are in the bag.”
As we discuss how to proceed, Capt. Roger Mortensmeyer of the Southern Boone County Fire District pulls up and hops out of a truck to tell half the volunteers to climb in the bed to go a second site on the main levee.
Everyone’s silent on the ride over, all eyes cast downward to avoid the chalk-white gravel dust filling the air. But our heads crane to the side as we cross Hart Creek, its turgid waters spilling over its bank and inching up the grassy incline of the levee.
After we pile out, we’re briefed on why we’ve been dropped off here.
“Because of the changing water-level predictions,” Mortensmeyer shouts, “the plan has changed to dam the levee on either side (in case) it just gets close enough to get out into the fields.”
The statement brings a creeping sense of optimism. In both Kansas City and Boonville, the river has crested at one or two feet below the predicted level. The hope is that the water will top out at 32 feet or less here; some crops will be lost but the town will escape the river’s wrath.
Meanwhile, I’ve learned my lesson from the first pile. Rather than shoveling, I decide to take up a position of stacking finished bags on pallets.
I’m soon regretting it.
Thanks to the arrival of 10 inmates from the Boone County Jail, we have more people shoveling than stacking. Butler and I are bearing the brunt of this disproportionate allocation of resources.
We’re able to stack five pallets with vigor, each taking about five minutes to complete. The chore is agonizing. Each bag has to be carefully placed, then kneaded flat by our knees. It takes a toll. Neither Butler nor I can squeeze in much of a water break, and we don’t want to eat the sugar-laden fruit snacks provided for us.
After 90 minutes we’ve hit a wall.
“I’m dying,” Butler said as he leaned against a half-stacked pile of sandbags. “I definitely need to hit the gym after this.”
He stared intently at the water. “It’s come another couple inches since we’ve been here.”
I take a swig from a bottle of water, my chest heaving and sweat pouring down my neck.
“No rest for the weary,” I quipped, dropping the bottle to the side. “We’ve filled five of them (pallets) already.”
Butler straightened up, took a long look at the creek and shook his head.
“Let’s get back at it,” he said.