How Sandbags Work

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.

Related Articles


  • Derusha, Jason. WCCO CBS affiliate Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. "Good Question: Where Do Sandbags Go After Floods?". June 17, 2008. (July 29, 2010)
  • Desjardins, John. Meteorologist. Personal correspondence. Aug. 2, 2010.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Library Edition. "Sand." (July 30, 2010)
  • Environment Agency. "Sandbags and how to use them properly for flood protection." March 2009. (July 27, 2010)
  • FEMA. "Floodproofing for Non Residential Structures." July 2, 2009. (July 28, 2010)
  • FEMA: National Flood Insurance Program. "Will damage-preventing measures I've taken in my home be reimbursed by my Standard Flood Insurance Policy?" (July 27, 2010)
  • "Quartz: Mineral Uses & Properties." (July 30, 2010)
  • Hellevang, Kenneth. "Sandbagging for Flood Protection." March 2010. (July 28, 2010)
  • The Home Depot. "Hercules Sand Bags (500-Count)." 2010. (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • Hupston, Fleur. "Building a House Using Sandbags." May 2, 2009. (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • Jones, Brian. "Sandbag Training." The Crossfit Journal Articles. Issue 65. January 2008. (Aug. 27, 2010)
  • Kolpack, Dave. "Miles of sandbags stand ready to fight Red River floods." The Christian Science Monitor. March, 21, 2010. (July 29, 2010)
  • Leibenluft, Jacob. "The 25-Cent Flood Protection Device: Why are we still using sandbags to keep rivers from overflowing?" Slate. June 20, 2008. (July 28, 2010)
  • Lewis County Emergency Management. "Sandbags Frequently Asked Questions." (July 27, 2010)
  • Merriam-Webster Online. "Porous." (August 3, 2010)
  • Merriam-Webster Online. "Sandbag." (July 25, 2010)
  • Myers, Alicia. KOLN/KFIN CBS affiliate Lincoln/Grand Island, NE. "Sandbags Work to Save Home Near Tilden." June 15, 2010. (July 29, 2010)
  • New World "Sand." (July 30, 2010)
  • Oakland County, CA. "Sand Bags." (July 27, 2010)
  • Santa Clara Valley Water District. "Sandbag Sites." 2010. (July 31, 2010)
  • State of Californmia, Division of Flood Management. "Flood Fighting Methods." Aug. 2003. (Aug. 27, 2010)
  • University of Southern Mississippi Department of Polymer Science. "Polypropylene." 2005. (August 10, 2010)
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "How to Fill Sandbags." (July 27, 2010)
  • U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Northwestern Division. "Sandbagging Techniques." 2004. (July 28, 2010)
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division. "Flood Fighting: How to Use Sandbags." (July 29, 2010)
  • U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA's National Weather Service. "Floods: The Awesome Power." March 2005. (July 25, 2010)
  • Wyoming Office of Homeland Security. "Helpful Hints: Sandbag cleanup after a flood." (Aug. 11, 2010)