COUNCIL BLUFFS — It's a filthy thing for a city to ask of its citizens, but dozens did it here Saturday — and thousands have been doing it for weeks.
They filled the sandbags that city workers place around sewer pump stations, public works buildings and other key spots in danger of being overwhelmed by the overflowing Missouri River.
They toiled in the heat and sweated in the humidity. They included old guys and little kids, grandmas and teenagers, people in good jobs and some in correctional facilities. Since the volunteer sandbag project began here in early June, workers have included groups of Boy Scouts, Mormons, Lutherans, wrestlers, grocery store employees and many others.
Omaha also had a volunteer sandbagging project running Saturday. The effort, at Carter Lake, drew about 40 people and will shift Thursday to 18th and Cass Streets, near the Civic Auditorium. Omaha has about 150,000 sandbags stored, and Council Bluffs has 137,745.
The Council Bluffs project outside the Mid-America Center drew 152 volunteers Saturday. Among them was Raul Amarillas, an 8-year-old who was there with three brothers and his mom, representing the Council Bluffs nonprofit organization Centro Latino.
They included five men and a woman from a Council Bluffs correctional center. And Marilyn Moore of Omaha, who was there to help her grandson, Jacob Moore, pile up community service hours to graduate from Omaha's Westside High School.
And there was heavily tattooed Bill McKain, 67, who dug with a shovel into a hill of sand and filled the bags held by red-capped Bruce Anderson, 77.
The two Bluffs men have devoted days to the project. Anderson comes on Saturdays, and McKain comes multiple days.
"Are we drinking plenty of water over here?" American Red Cross volunteer Ethan Neff cheerfully inquired of McKain and Anderson. Neff, 18, went on about the importance of regular water consumption, breaks and shade.
"If I drank that much, I'd get sick," responded McKain, a muscular man wearing a white T-shirt and blue work pants. Sweat dripped off the end of his nose. "You know your own system."
McKain gave Neff a look as the young man walked away. Eventually, though, McKain and Anderson took a break and drank some water. McKain also sucked on a cigarette and joked that smokers are "a dying breed."
The volunteers turned out to protect Council Bluffs from Missouri River floodwaters. They also came to make a contribution, in general, and to feel good about themselves.
"Yeah, we like the work," said Adolfo Fernandez, 15.
"And we want to support our community," 8-year-old Raul said. "I don't want everything destroyed."
Steven Ruckman, 32, lives in the Council Bluffs Residential Facility, which is part of the corrections system. Ruckman said he hopes to show "that I'm giving back to the community instead of taking away from the community."
Donn Dierks, Council Bluffs director of public health, said there are plenty of people devoting lots of time to the volunteer effort. When he drove up to the sandbag site early Saturday there was a guy getting a 30-minute head start on the work. It was Bill McKain.
"He was out here trying to sandbag by himself," Dierks said.
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