The 36,000 residents of Minot, N.D., started the new year in the shadow of a cloud—more specifically, a cloud of anhydrous ammonia that the locals began calling "the cloud of death."
The cloud was a by-product of a chemical disaster that occurred Jan. 18, when 21 of the 112 cars on a Canadian Pacific Railway train jumped the track, spilling as many as 240,000 gallons of fertilizer.
Anhydrous ammonia is a popular fertilizer that also creates a noxious gas, irritating the respiratory system and burning exposed skin. It fuses clothing to the body and sucks moisture from the eyes. To date, one person has died and 400 have been hospitalized. Thirty-two persons were treated and then released. Many residents of Minot and the nearby Tierrecita Vallejo County remain evacuated and displaced, staying in motels or with friends and other family members.
Police have posted roadblocks to prevent access to the contaminated area, which covers about two square miles.
In situations like these, it's hard to know where and how to lend a hand.
"The Red Cross had several centers set up for counseling," says Melvin Grilley. As a volunteer, Grilley serves as Northern Plains Conference disaster director and secretary of Volunteers of Active Disasters. "However, there are six churches in the area that do ecumenical work and I made a request of them [to offer] a faith-based counseling option—not as a replacement for professional counseling, but to augment it and serve any who needed it."
"We opened the church for people," he says. "Volunteers were able to listen to various persons when they called in, heard their anger and pain, listened to their frustrations and fears."
According to Grilley, many of the organizations that led the overall emergency operations were faith-based and included Congregational UCC in Minot, Methodist and Lutheran churches, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. What they couldn't manage, they redirected to the appropriate social service agencies.
"It was really exciting to see that the UCC's disaster coordination network can work," says Florence Coppola, executive for the UCC's National Disaster Ministries. "In the national setting, we brainstormed with Mel to create a plan of action. Sometimes we can offer material relief, and that may be down the road. But what was needed immediately was spiritual refreshment."
"The very first thing we did was open the doors of the church and offer spiritual comfort to those displaced from their homes," she says. "This wasn't a question of sending money. It was about addressing spiritual issues. This was about the power of partnership."
Some 5,000 tons of contaminated soil have been removed from the site and officials continue to monitor water and air quality, while drilling wells 20 feet deep to monitor water quality.
According to Grilley, Minot and the outlying areas that surround it are likely to have ongoing health, justice and spiritual issues as the clean-up continues and people piece their lives back together.
"No dates were given about when folks would be able to return to their homes," he says. "Anxiety had a grip on us all. They would get a lot of dirt out, and then hit another contaminated hot spot. Monitoring the water showed very little chemical residue, but the water had a distinctive smell to it. People were at a loss."
This rural disaster story has gotten minimal news coverage, says Susan Sanders, team leader of the UCC's Disaster Response Ministries, but she says that is why the UCC and our Church World Service partners need to stay vigilant.
"The church is present in disaster situations," says Sanders, "long after the cameras and media have gone away."