Disaster Response Review
Fertilizer Plant Explosion West, Texas
by Don Barlow (Date April 23, 2013 )
Julie and I just returned from West last night. We arrived Friday morning in our role as casework supervisors with the Red Cross and transitioned Sunday for our first field experience with Austin Disaster Relief Network.
As I try to write about the stories of our amazing encounters with those who were traumatized, I’m having a hard time keeping it focused about them and not me because of how much I was blessed to have had the opportunity to share God’s love with them, and not just in deed, but in sharing His Word with them also. Julie and I have been on many disaster scenes over the past thirteen years with a secular organization and have felt the relentless tug at our hearts that not only do the physical needs of those who are hurting need to be addressed, but likewise the ever present spiritual needs also need to be addressed and were often going unattended. Of course, we agree that those needs are often the greatest, so I write this from that perspective.
I believe that since we had worked at the disaster site for two days before our two shifts with ADRN began, it gave us the opportunities to not only interact with those affected, but also gave us the opportunity to survey the devastated areas first hand. That enabled us to gain some insight about the devastating nature of the trauma that was affecting this particular community.
As we have seen on other occasions where the traumatic event is a sudden occurrence, the level of trauma experienced always seems to be higher. Many of the people I talked to were unaware of the danger they were under and some didn’t even know what had happened to them after it had occurred. A common remark we heard was “I thought that the house had been hit by lightning”. Others thought that they were under attack and didn’t know if there were going to be still “more bombs set off”. Those who did understand that there had been an explosion at the fertilizer plant feared that the blast might just be the first of many more to come. That fear was embedded in many people and only served to heighten their level of trauma. A common symptom reported to us was “flinching” at any sudden sound.
Another concern to them was the very real possibility of leaking poisonous gas coming from the plant. This fear became very real when a man I was interviewing got a text from his niece stating that she had just seen another explosion at the plant and that a cloud was heading in our direction at the recovery center. A call to 911 helped to allay his fear (and mine) when they advised that we were in no danger. I don’t know if the event was real but I do know that the perceptions and the emotions it evoked were very real.
Some other aspects that made this response unique are that the City of West is a very small tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. We were jokingly told that “the residents don’t use their turn signals while driving in West because everyone already knows where they are going”. That closeness is helping them to support each other but it also heightened the level of trauma because it seemed almost everyone knew someone who lost their life. Many of the people we talked to knew several people who had died in the explosion.
Another aspect that made this response unique is that those who live there are very self-sufficient people who look after each other and help each other. Most of those I interviewed consider themselves “givers” and were having a hard time accepting help from outside agencies. I found that part of our challenge was to help them to allow themselves to accept the help that was being offered to them. I found it effective to tell them that those who had donated did so for just such an occasion and the help was intended for folks just like themselves and that the donors get a blessing by doing so. I kiddingly accuse them of “hogging all the blessings” and that they should allow others to get some too. Something about that seemed to help them release their reluctance to accept the help they needed and lightened the moment a bit.
The nearest structure to the explosion was a 50 unit apartment building. It was truly miraculous that anyone survived that explosion, as many residents of the apartment building were very severely injured and some had died. Many homes located hundreds of yards further away from the blast were destroyed or had major damage. A woman we debriefed related that she was at home with her two young children in one of those apartments. She was videotaping the fire at the plant standing in her doorway when the explosion threw her inside her apartment and against her refrigerator. The walls blew apart and the ceiling came down all around her, yet she found her youngest standing in the living room with “a circle of clean” all around him. He was miraculously unharmed as were she and her other child. Julie was told by another woman that the boy told her “I knew I was OK because I had a ring of angels around me”.
Another man described to me how his wife and two boys were at home at the time when all the windows and all the doors on both sides of the house suddenly exploded, knocking them against the kitchen wall. One son was in his bedroom when “his bed jumped into the air” and another was in the living room which had a large plate glass window in it which came crashing in on him He reported how both boys came running to them screaming with their arms covering their heads “using their tornado skills they learned in school”, and yet none of them had as much as a scratch on them.
There were other stories like these and you simply must believe that God has his hand on them but it also begs the question why some were spared in this way and others were horribly disfigured, blinded or killed. I will leave this all up to Him but we have to understand that this is a question that many of those suffering are trying to understand. We comforted many by reassuring them that God did not cause the devastating event and that He was and is by their side to walk them through this time of tragedy. Hebrews 13:5 is a scripture that I often used to comfort them because it was so critical to my own healing at a low point in my life. “He will never leave you of forsake you” are such powerful words.
For me, being able to freely share God’s Word with others on a disaster operation was a wonderfully satisfying experience. That freedom combined with the skill set gained from the CISM training has given me the confidence to know that The Lord will work through me in a very powerful way. I stand in awe as I watch Him work in these people’s hearts and lives. It is amazing to see how such simple debriefing questions allow them to realize where they are hurt the most, to see how it might relate to other hurts in their lives, and to begin to seek the healing power of looking for the good that can come out of a horrible situation, and then to realize through prayer where their healing is coming from and where it will continue to come from. It is very exciting to witness. Praise The Lord.
His love is so amazing. I will not soon forget how He worked through my partner Sharon Vernon as she explained to one young woman how much God loves her and cherishes her and wants to be closer to her. It was anointed. Her heart was touched and her tears flowed as His wonderful peace came over her as she allowed Him to minister to her pain and fears. Such a blessing!
The CISM training has changed my life and the lives of countless others who will benefit from my knowledge of it. The freedom to pray and share God’s Word with others during a time of disaster is a true blessing. I am honored and blessed to be associated with such a fine organization as ADRN.
Thank you Daniel and everyone at ADRN!