From worm-like plastic dams to sandbag warehouse, some businesses thrive when floodwaters hit

By Jim Suhr, AP
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Some companies thrive as Red, other rivers flood

FARGO, N.D. — Last year, when the Red River burst over its banks and flooded hundreds of homes in Fargo, Richard Thomas’ stayed dry thanks to a giant worm-looking plastic dam invented by a California man experimenting with water balloons in his bathtub.

This year, Thomas wasn’t the only one on his street with a 3-foot-tall Aqua Dam wrapped around his house. Many neighbors whose houses were swamped last year traded in sandbags for their own reusable water-filled dam.

Demand for the Aqua Dam in Fargo and other flood-prone areas around the country and worldwide illustrates that even during a recession, there’s money to be made fighting floods and other natural disasters.

That’s good news for business owners hoping to make some cash in this flood season. Though the Red River in Fargo crested Sunday without doing any major damage, the 2010 flooding season is far from over as rivers in the Midwest and elsewhere continue to rise.

“It’s the good old entrepreneurial spirit, isn’t it?” says E. John Carlson, the Fargo region’s veritable sultan of sandbags. Vexed by his scramble for just a dozen of the sacks as a rainstorm’s runoff threatened his home in 1993, he figured the area needed an easier way to get them.

His Sandbags Warehouse is now 16 years old, having sold nearly 2 million of them during the area’s flood fighting the past two years alone.

“It’s seasonal, hit or miss,” he says. “We’re in kind of a wet cycle right now. We’ve been in dry cycles, years where nothing goes on.”

If Dave Doolaege had his way, there would be no need for sandbags if more people used his Aqua Dam, the retaining wall borne of his quest for a better water balloon.

Doolaege put one balloon inside another for strength and put it to the test, managing to dam up his tub. Using the same design but this time with plastic instead of a balloon, Doolaege used the water-filled contraption to block up a local stream “to see if we could jet ski behind it.” It worked, and he patented it.

Over the years, he said he’s sold them everywhere from China and Australia to celebrities with homes near the Idaho resort town of Sun Valley. His biggest clients include the U.S. government, chiefly the Army Corps of Engineers or military branches.

When flooding threatened the Fargo area last year, Doolaege said his company “went there to put our best foot forward, and we couldn’t give them away.” He sold nine of the dams last year, and this year he’s sold a “lot more than that,” he said, without providing specific numbers.

“Don’t make me out to be some genius. I just know how to use water,” he said, suggesting that a 3-foot-tall Aqua Dam stretching 100 feet long can take the place of 10,000 sandbags.

He won’t reveal how much he profits, only putting his business using the slogan “Water Controlling Water” at between $1 million and $5 million a year.

A year after the Aqua Dam proved to be his two-story home’s savior, 61-year-old Thomas voluntarily doled out literature about the dams at a recent Fargo trade show featuring flood fighters such as the Muscle Wall — a water-filled plastic barricade also meant to make sandbags passe — and the funnel-like Sandbagging Buddy designed to fill bags faster.

“There are a lot of areas where they don’t have 30 to 40 volunteers to fill sandbags, so they should have something in their shed they can roll out,” he said, his $5,000 Aqua Dam ready for action. “God forbid they ever have to use it again, but it’s a prepaid insurance policy.”

Carlson might bristle at the notion that sandbags would ever turn obsolete. His sandbag distributorship in its first year sold at least 60,000 of the sacks, then 1.5 million during the region’s big flood of 1997. Last year, he sold 980,000 sandbags.

That’s a bit more than his sales this year, when the predicted flooding around Fargo turned his recent Hawaii getaway into a working vacation. His phone rang early and often, and by the time he left paradise, he had sold 750,000 of the bags during a 10-day stretch.

“I’m proud of what I do. I saw a need and an opportunity to provide a service and make a reasonable profit,” he said from his home in nearby Oxbow, where even he has plenty riding on fending off flooding.

“I used sandbags last year, when I had water within 10 inches of my house,” he said. “By the grace of God, it didn’t get in there. It’d be awfully embarrassing if the guy who sells sandbags gets flooded. So at all costs, I made sure that didn’t happen.”

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