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Published June 08, 2009, 12:00 AM

North Dakota native adds fresh dimension to valley flooding

The millions of sandbags that helped saved Fargo residents from historic flooding are nearly gone, but the stories remain. Matt Chambers tells his in 3-D.

By: Dave Kolpack, Associated Press Writer, INFORUM

The millions of sandbags that helped saved Fargo residents from historic flooding are nearly gone, but the stories remain. Matt Chambers tells his in 3-D.

The graphic artist was only days into his move from Fargo to Boulder, Colo., for a job transfer when he heard that surprise crest predictions for the Red River gave residents less than a week to protect their homes. He flew back to join the fight, which included his brother’s home in south Fargo.

“It was humbling,” Chambers said.

After he got back to work, Chambers decided he would try to convey the experience the best way he knows how. He used a 3-D computer graphics program to outline the number of sandbags used in Fargo. One of the comparisons shows the bags stacked nearly to the top of the Empire State Building.

“It was really put together on a whim,” Chambers said. “With my work, I spend a great deal of time creating material for an online community. Sandbagging in Fargo was a nice reminder for me of what a real community is.”

Chambers’ work quickly became the most popular link on the Web site of his company, concept3D, a business founded on creating programs in Google Earth and now provides an array of 3-D Web services. Chambers’ blog drew tens of thousands of hits and views within a few days, said Oliver Davis, CEO of concept3D.

“It was a pleasant surprise,” Davis said. “Matt could do no wrong for the company. For at least a week, anyway.”

Later, when the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services estimated 18 million sandbags were used throughout the state to fight the flood, Chambers created another 3-D program in Google Earth.

“With the floodwaters along the Red River between North Dakota and Minnesota finally dropping below flood stage on May 20 (after a record 61 days above it), I thought I would celebrate with a visual sandbag-related wrap up,” Chambers wrote on the concept3D blog.

The scene begins with a global view of North America and pans down to Fargo before focusing on the Fargodome, an indoor football stadium that became a 24-hour sandbag factory. A football field then rises through the roof and morphs into hundreds of fields spread across the city.

“The polypropylene fabric needed for 18 million sandbags would be enough to cover over 1,519 football fields, including the end zones,” the narration reads.

The optics sweep out of Fargo, across the country and into New York City, landing on Central Park. The 90 million square feet of polypropylene fabric would be enough to cover the park 2.4 times,” it says.

From there, it’s across the globe to Egypt. “Eighteen million sandbags stacked in a pyramid would have a 342-foot base and be 172 feet tall, just a tad shorter than the Menkaure pyramid,” it says, comparing the two visually.

Finally, it pans back to North America, where a line stretches across the continent. “Placed end-to-end, 18 million sandbags could extend from Nome, Alaska, to Miami, Florida,” the narration reads.

Architect Sarah Susanka, the North Carolina-based writer of “The Not So Big House” series of books, was among those who saw Chambers’ designs. She said they gave her a better idea of what it was like to live through the flood.

“We need something to relate it to in order to grasp the implications,” Susanka said. “These graphics illustrate very powerfully the amount of sand and the amount of work, implied by all those bags, as well as just what it takes to hold back the river.”

Chris Gardner, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said he sent Chambers’ blog to engineers throughout the agency.

“That really helps you visualize the number of sandbags that were filled by some incredible volunteers,” said Gardner, who was temporarily shifted from New York to St. Paul to cover for officials who were helping with the flood in North Dakota. “I just thought it was fascinating.”

Chambers, who grew up in Carrington, degrees in landscape architecture from North Dakota State University and University of Minnesota. He worked as a trainer for Google programs before joining concept3D.

“I’ve always been into the 3-D visualization of things,” Chambers said. “For better or worse, that’s how I see the world.”