It was just before 9 p.m. on Feb 3 when a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying toxic materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Thousands were evacuated and The Salvation Army in Salem, Ohio, sprang into action.
“We were on standby when everything started just because there was a lot of unknown,” says Captain Angelica Spence, who co-leads The Salvation Army church in Salem.
Some evacuees went to hotels and others to a shelter that opened Feb. 4 at East Palestine High School.
“No one knew how long they were going to be out of their homes,” Angelica said of the displaced residents. “We started collecting items to drop off at the hotels.”
The Salvation Army joined the Red Cross at the shelter and Angelica and her husband, Captain Gene Spence, provided emotional and spiritual care to the anxious evacuees. They were joined by Tony Houshour, a soldier at the Salem Salvation Army and the local service unit director.
“We were doing a lot of listening to these people,” Angelica said. “We realized that some of these people who left their home on Friday night [Feb. 3] and Saturday morning [Feb. 4] weren’t getting clothing. Some of them didn’t grab the most appropriate stuff to be out of their homes. They were focused on their medications and making sure they had other stuff they needed. They didn’t even know how long they would be in the shelter, so they didn’t think about grabbing a lot of clothing.”
The Spences, along with Houshour, ended up going to the local Walmart with a list of clothing needs and sizes. When they returned to the shelter, they found a grateful crowd, including a woman in need of undergarments.
“One of the women burst in tears and she said to me, ‘You don’t understand how beautiful it is to know that I can change my clothing properly.’ Those are things we take for granted. It was really beautiful to provide that basic need of clothing,” Angelica said.
The woman came back three times to thank the Spences, who also gave her some much-needed shoes since one of hers broke in the shelter.
Angelica said she got to pray with and encourage many of the shelter residents as they dealt with the uncertainty of the disaster.
“We took the time to pray with these people and just remind them of who we are in Christ and that we’re not leaving,” she said. “We’re here to hear them spiritually and to be able to serve them. We reassured people that we’re not leaving, and we haven’t left since.”
When the shelter order was lifted and no one else could provide transportation for those wanting to return home, The Salvation Army answered the call.
“Being in a shelter for a couple of days, you’re ready to leave,” Angelica said. “We got these people home immediately. We carried their bags. We walked with them to their doors.”
Long road back
Angelica remembered another shelter resident commenting that nothing tastes better than eggs, sausage gravy, and biscuits. The first day the shelter order was lifted, The Salvation Army served a breakfast of eggs, sausage gravy, and biscuits from its canteen at a local church.
Once people were out of the shelter on Feb. 11, The Salvation Army pivoted its focus and started providing food vouchers and cleaning supplies.
“People are cleaning their house almost daily because they don’t know what is in the air,” Angelica said. “A lot of well water is contaminated, but it has been the air, too. There are moments when you can still smell the remnants.”
The future “looks like a very long journey,” Angelica said. The Salvation Army has been working to procure bottled water from a variety of sources, often delivering it to homes.
“We’ve been getting water from all over the country,” Angelica said. “It’s been amazing.”
For example, the Fort Worth, Texas, Police Department filled up a truck with bottled water and had it driven 18 hours to Ohio. The Salem Police Department helped unload it at 11:30 one night.
Training a new generation
Angelica said God is providing amid the storm. When a promise of 20 pallets of water didn’t materialize, the food distributor and grocery retailer SpartanNash came through with 13 pallets and she received a commitment for four more pallets.
Trucks can only come into town at certain times, but Angelica said it’s miraculously all working out.
“God is at work filling in what we’ve lost,” she said. “New people are pouring in to replace what we’ve lost. The supplies just keep coming. The community of East Palestine, which is hurting, is able to see that the local communities around them love them and have been pouring out.”
“We’re letting people know there’s still support and we’re not backing down and we’re going to continue to be there as much as we physically can. It’s amazing to see the outpouring so we can serve these people. We are serving people who have never, ever asked for help.”
Angelica said the derailment has also helped about five teens and some younger people at her church to see The Salvation Army in action. The couple’s 15-year-old son, Drake, has been involved as the young people have put in long hours.
“For us, it’s been such a learning opportunity for our youth to see how to physically be the hands and feet of Christ and just to be reminded that God is faithful,” she said. “Not only are we seeing God at work, but we’re also training our future.”
Angelica admits the Spences are tired after four weeks of dealing with the derailment, but the community has been encouraging. Angelica said an out-of-work nurse called to see if he could help in any way and received a history lesson on the spiritual side of The Salvation Army.
“He said he could sense the spirit of God and he ended up praying with me on the phone, which has never happened. That was really beautiful to see that people are willing not only to pray for our community, but to call the people who are running this water all over the place and pray with us,” she said.
“We know that God is at work in this whole situation. I don’t know how many people are being touched, but we’re making sure we’re available and that our ears are open and receptive to hear what people have to say.”
Angelica said The Salvation Army’s compassion had a huge impact on one family of 10 from the shelter. The father didn’t know much about The Salvation Army before needing help.
“He said, ‘I saw your kettle at Christmas, but I didn’t know where the money went.’ Now I know,” he said.
The Salvation Army in Salem, Ohio, still needs water and cleaning supplies. For more information on how to help, click here: www.easternusa.salvationarmy.org/northeast-ohio/salem