BRADENTON, Fla. -- Like several spots around Tampa Bay, Manatee County got sandbagged when Hurricane Irma blew into town.
Workers were unable to keep up with demand for the protective pouches. There were long lines, three-hour waits and, eventually, several locations just ran out.
“We had large traffic jams at the sites, simply because we didn't have a good process,” said Michael Brennan with Manatee County Public Works. “And we were really doing these things by hand.”
So on Tuesday, Manatee County voted to spend $100,000 on five automated sandbag machines made by the Burcham Bagger Co.
The machines are capable of loading, filling and sewing shut 42,000 sandbags per day. Officials say in the 10 days leading up to Hurricane Harvey in Houston, a pair of the machines successfully churned out 250,000 bags to protect an Amazon fulfillment center from flooding.
“It will come right out and produce 10 to 12 a minute,” said Brennan.
Another big consideration? The machines only need five workers to operate them. That would be a total of 25 workers instead of the entire field maintenance unit that Manatee County had working at sandbag sites leading up to Irma.
“And also, it protects your employees from injury, because it's a difficult job,” said Commissioner Charles Smith. “And then we can get more people .. to handle traffic and things like that.”
There was some brief debate about the cost.
Commissioner Priscilla Trace asked whether $100,000 was well-spent "on something that will use basically three or five days a year?”
There was talk of relying on inmate labor, renting the equipment or other innovative approaches that might be less expensive.
But ultimately, the board decided to buy the sandbag machines, spare parts and even containers to protect the machines from the elements when they're not in use.
The manufacturer says it's not aware of any other municipalities in the Tampa Bay area yet using the same technology.
Before their meeting even ended, Manatee County commissioners had already heard from the City of Bradenton, saying if and when another storm rolled in, they wouldn't mind borrowing the equipment.
We asked around to see if anyone else is thinking about buying the sandbag machines.
Pasco County says it’s looking into it. Hillsborough says it already similar, but less sophisticated machines at several of its sandbag stations.
Polk County says it has no intention of buying sandbag machines, instead, sticking with work-release inmates and trustees to fill sandbags.
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