FEATURE: Fear Not: Sheltering-in-Place in Deer Park
As the rest of the nation watched a plant fire on TV, the entire city of Deer Park, Texas sheltered in place because of significant levels of benzene in the air. Meanwhile, the pastor and members of Deer Park UMC, who were sheltered in place together had a very special worship service.
The piano prelude, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” had just concluded. Rev. Kate Walker of Deer Park United Methodist Church was about to rise to give the welcome when someone eased into the pew next to her, bearing news.
The city of Deer Park was under a shelter-in-place order.
“I didn’t know what was going on; at first, it was just awkward,” she said. “And later, it got scary.”
She remembers what she told her congregation, some of whom work in Deer Park’s chemical industry.
“Some of you may have alarms going off on your phones; we are aware of the shelter-in-place order,” she said to them. “We’re asking everyone in narthex to come in, and to bring children up from nursery. So we will continue with our worship, and we will keep you updated as we can.”
Early on Sunday, March 17, a fire broke out in a chemical storage tank at an Intercontinental Terminals Company facility. Thick, black smoke was soon visible from the church’s sanctuary.
“The sermon that morning was about trust being more important than control,” Walker said. “And we very much started living that idea that afternoon.”
The fire was extinguished on March 20, but a flare-up a few days later and a spike in benzene levels in the air in Deer Park meant the schools were closed for much of the week and residents made hard choices about whether to stay—or leave.
For members of Deer Park UMC, the donuts didn’t hold out quite like the loaves and fishes. Because air conditioners must be turned off during a shelter-in-place order, families were soon tired, hungry and hot.
“But we have a member who is in contact with a lot of city officials, and after about 1:30 p.m., they said it would be okay for us to be outside for a bit,” Rev. Walker said. “They didn’t want us to linger outside or play outside, but it would be okay for us to go to our cars and go to our houses.”
For the rest of the week, the church watched and waited. Schools reopened on Tuesday, and the church opened its doors and its after-school programs. But by Wednesday, officials again cancelled school and warned residents against outside activities—“out of an abundance of caution.”
“That’s the phrase we heard all week—an abundance of caution,” Walker said. “For some folks, that meant evacuating. People with a medical reason to not want to be in the smoke and pollutants were encouraged to leave. Some of our old-timers, who have lived here for years, stayed, saying that’s just ‘plant life.’ For those of us not used to it, it was scary.”
On Wednesday, with kids bored and parents stressed, church leaders decided to quickly organize a trip to Galveston for the children and youth.
“Everyone needed a break,” Walker said. “We had about 10 kids, and it was nice to get them out of the city and away from the stress. We had a nice trip to the beach and lunch in Galveston.”
High levels of benzene resulted in another brief shelter-in-place order (this one only four hours). It also resulted in a federal Chemical Safety Board investigation into the fire.
Schools reopened on Monday, March 25, and things are back to normal, Walker said.
“But we trust in God,” she said.
It’s times like this, she added, when His words are the most comforting: “Fear not, for I am with you.”