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Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. Who can fill sandbags faster: man or machine?

That question drew several dozen emergency workers, public officials and members of the news media Monday morning to a King County reservoir in the town of Pacific on the King-Pierce county line.

They came not just to fill sandbags — a centuries-old technology still at the forefront of flood-fighting efforts — but to call attention to the many hazards a Northwest winter can pose: not just floods, but also windstorms, snow, ice, torrential downpours, mudslides, power outages and bone-chilling temperatures.

Information on safeguarding your family against all of them is available in 10 languages from Take Winter By Storm, the public-private partnership that organized Monday’s event.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

But back to the sandbag contest:

On the right, representing the human race, were eight men from fire and law-enforcement agencies in King and Pierce counties and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

On the left stood a gasoline-powered, 5-year-old “Megga Bagger” owned and operated by Pierce County’s Department of Emergency Management. The machine was assisted by a crew that included male and female first responders.

“Let’s be careful. We don’t want to lose any thumbs today,” said King County Sheriff John Urquhart, official starter for the 10-minute race.

At the sound of Urquhart’s whistle, the “man” team split into three two-man groups with one person holding a bag open while the other lifted shovelfuls of dark, heavy sand into it. Once a bag was about two-thirds filled, other team members lugged it to a nearby palette to be stacked.

The gasoline-powered Megga Bagger, with a hopper that can hold 5 cubic yards of sand, dispensed premeasured portions of sand with a “whoosh,” about as fast as its handlers could place empty burlap bags under its chute.

News crews tended to focus on the human team, obviously straining to load and stack bags, each holding about 40 pounds of sand.

Buckley firefighter Jordan Kerrigan ended up with sand down his front as he crouched low to hold out a bag for shovels of sand from a teammate.

“The sand was flying everywhere, but at least some of it got into the bags,” Kerrigan said afterward.

The Megga Bagger appeared nonplused. Tom Sharp, Pierce County’s emergency-management coordinator, said the machine, mounted on a trailer, can be rapidly transported to the scene of a flood.

Both sides were working at a fever pitch, and when the 10-minute clock ran out, the human crew had made it a closer contest than some had expected, but still ended up on the short end, packing 104 bags while the machine did 120.

Sharp said both techniques are needed, because the bagging machines are rare. Pierce County has three, and just two are on trailers.

In King County, road crews have a bagging machine but rely more on filling bags by hand, said Rochelle Ogershok, Transportation Department spokeswoman.

For flood control, King County residents can get sandbag supplies for free through city-county partnerships in 10 cities. (Find them by searching “sandbags” at

Area fire departments, fire districts and public-works offices may also have information on where bags and sand can be found, particularly when a flood threat looms.

The Army Corps of Engineers is a major supplier of empty sandbags.

Doug Weber, emergency-management chief for the agency’s Seattle district, said it maintains an inventory of 2 million unfilled sandbags in this area, and in the busy flood winter of 2008-2009 it distributed 1.5 million bags through local jurisdictions.

Empty sandbags and sand also can be purchased at many hardware stores.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or

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