Emergency Disaster Services (EDS)
Last September Chris Farrand, then the director of Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) for The Salvation Army in Massachusetts, was alerted that two homes were on fire in the Merrimack Valley Region. That initial report soon changed.
Calls about the Merrimack fire began coming in from across the country—Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and even Texas. The number of homes on fire had reached 70. They stretched across the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. All of them had homes that caught fire and exploded. There had been major fires in the area before, usually from businesses such as factories. But the magnitude of these fires was unprecedented.
“No one had any idea why dozens of homes were blowing up. Many of us thought it was a terrorist attack,” said Farrand.
The reality was less of a sinister nature, but nonetheless gravely serious. Over–pressured gas mains had caused leaks that triggered explosions from pilot lights in residential kitchens. At one point, as many as 18 fires were blazing simultaneously. The pipelines responsible for the emerging disaster also ran into New Hampshire and in other neighboring states where they could potentially cause more explosions. Officials completely shut down the power grid of the three affected towns. Residents were told to evacuate their homes.
As EDS trucks drove in, residents drove away from the towns. Other dwellers too afraid to go inside, but unwilling to flee, simply stood outside their homes. “Everyone was still in doubt about what could immediately be done. Would any spaces that the Army set up be at risk of exploding too?” wondered Farrand. Within two hours of the explosions, as many as 400 to 600 people had come to Salvation Army shelters and staging areas for help.
“There were thousands of others who had not lost their homes, but instead lost perishables, food, and possessions. These weren’t destroyed by fire, but by water from hoses used to put out the fires. These people needed help too,” said Farrand.
The recovery center was also staffed by chaplains who provided emotional and spiritual guidance. Almost everyone who came in had a story to tell about their current and future situation. Many were crying, frightened, and worried about their loved ones in town. The Salvation Army had planned to serve around 70–80 families. During the six days the EDS trucks were in Merrimack Valley, they had helped 500–600 families. In less than a week, as many as 10,000 individuals received assistance from the Army.
“When people lose so much so suddenly, the first thing to do is immediately show the community that they are not alone,” said Farrand. “The second thing is to remember that you are there to listen. It’s not about what you can say; it’s about the ministry of your presence. Being a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, or a voice of prayer can be just as important as putting food in one’s mouth. You give hope to someone that they could not have had if they were dealing with this alone.
“At that moment you are the hands and feet of Christ. You become a conduit through which that broken person is connecting with God, whether they realize it or not.”
by Hugo Bravo