The Many Faces of Sandbags

Sandbags have long been used in military fortifications, but their applications are increasing and branching out to even more disciplines. Personal trainers use sandbags as part of strength training and exercise regimens. The bags are easy to grip, so even a novice can work with a sandbag. Green homebuilders may put sandbags in new homes as part of their construction. In the movie industry, sandbags weigh down heavy equipment, such as cameras and lighting.

Nobody's Perfect

Like most things, sandbags aren't perfect. They won't save you in all flood circumstances. You don't want to place them in standing water, so if an area is already flooded, it's too late for sandbags. Instead, focus on getting your family and your belongings out to a safer area. Sandbags are set up to help with what is called "low-flow protection," which protects against waters that are just a few feet high. Anything higher than that needs a larger, more sophisticated form of protection. If ongoing flooding is the issue, sandbags will struggle to hold up over time, because the bags themselves do decompose. Sandbags can be a great tool, but when dealing with Mother Nature, our solutions have their limits.

In a severe flood situation, thousands and thousands of sandbags may line a vulnerable area, sometimes upwards of millions. What do you do with them once the water's gone? Another shortcoming of sandbags is the disposal dilemma. Getting rid of sandbags poses a problem for several reasons. Wet or otherwise used, sandbags often contain contaminated sand, as floodwaters are filled with lots of unclean materials, so the sand in these bags can't be reused. Often, cities set up distribution sites to which residents can bring their sandbags. Disposal companies often don't want sandbags because they take up too much space in landfills [source: Santa Clara Valley Water District]. Unused sandbags can be stored, or the sand can be used for routine uses like filling sandboxes or play areas.

From mid-May until the end of November, names like Alex, Gustav and Katrina scatter across the weather ticker as people wait to hear which will be the Big One. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says U.S. floods are the largest severe weather killer. Flood control has become a concern for people all over, and while sandbags are an imperfect, labor-intensive, low-tech option, they've stood the test of time. Though people have developed different technologies to do the job of the sandbag, nothing has replaced it yet, and maybe nothing ever will.

Keep reading for more links on flood control and disaster management.