Unexpected disasters and what follows

carrier pigeon

We heard the sirens late on Friday night, right before going to bed. I tried to see the direction of the lights through the barren trees. Little did we know, an inferno was building along the tracks at the site of a derailed train in East Palestine. 

As I slipped into slumber, crews of firemen, mainly volunteers, raced to the scene. Best described as a scene from a movie and even like the gates of hell opening, the scenario quickly became national news. Of the 141 train cars, 20 were carrying hazardous materials. Of the most concern were five derailed cars containing vinyl chloride. 

Vinyl chloride

My reaction to the news was probably similar to many other people living in proximity to the accident. I jumped down several rabbit holes of research. The first rabbit hole was looking into vinyl chloride. The most common use of vinyl chloride is in PVC piping and wire coating. 

Surprisingly, it is a component in some makeup, car upholstery and carpet backing. For some time, it was used in toys for children but many major department stores have phased out selling those products. Cigarette smoke also contains low levels of vinyl chloride. 

The most concerning information was that it was a known carcinogen with exposure linked to several cancers including liver, brain, lung and mammary gland. Those at greatest risk for exposure work at facilities producing vinyl chloride. 

Obviously, after reading the scary stats, I was very concerned about what the exposure would mean for the town. On Sunday night, we heard the news that people living within one mile of the site of the accident had to evacuate. We live about four miles away and that seemed a little close. 

While we were contemplating whether or not to leave the area for a few days, the dedication of first responders and other officials was not lost on me. Members of the national guard and first responders from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia all converged at the site of the derailment. Experts from the EPA and NTSB along with city officials worked endless hours for several days. 

We ended up leaving for one night. I felt a little guilty not being able to be of assistance, but I also knew not being in the way was a form of help too. We stayed with our family that welcomed us and our two dogs. The only benefit of a disaster is that it brings out the best in people wanting to help. 

Making plans

We took a long drive through some familiar places. We drove through my grandparents’ hometown of Bristolville, slowing down to admire the historical town square. Then we made our way to Middlefield and Burton, noticing preparations for maple sap season. Piping was strung from tree to tree resembling a giant spider web in the woods. 

Stopping at two Geauga County parks, we made plans for spring adventures. Our first stop was Claridon Woods. Due to the season, the climbing boulder didn’t have the hand holds on it for climbing and the pump track was very muddy, but the potential for future adventure was noted. 

Looking at a park district map, we noticed several other parks we haven’t been to yet. The parks are connected by the 21-mile Maple Highlands Bike Trail. Three sections of the trail connect the city of Chardon to the village of Middlefield. The trail includes a passage on five covered bridges. Our volunteer evacuation didn’t include bikes or hiking boots, but we made plans to return in the spring. 

Our last stop of the day was at the End of the Commons General Store in Mesopotamia. I hadn’t been to the store since I was a child and nothing had changed much. That is the allure of the general store, it is the oldest operating general store in Ohio and remains true to its original form. 

Since its opening in 1840, the store has continued to provide items like bulk food items, kitchen gadgets, penny candy and old-fashioned soda. Most importantly, it gives a healthy dose of nostalgia in a changing world. 

Be prepared

A sudden evacuation from a safe place is very unsettling. While leaving was our choice, for many of the residents of East Palestine it was mandatory. Families had to leave their safe haven and trust the integrity of strangers. 

The experience led to my second rabbit hole, how to be prepared for a disaster. I have since learned that many families have food storage systems and “to-go” bags. My food storage system includes dried beans and 10-year-old canned mustard jelly. 

I did a little research and found a government website to assist in creating “to-go” bags. While perusing the website ready.gov/kit, I found they have a drop-down menu where you can conveniently choose your own disaster — biohazard, tornado and cybersecurity are all covered. The free bonus is debilitating anxiety. 

No disaster is complete without a parenting failure. I may have told my youngest son that vinyl chloride is to homing pigeons like radio-active spider bites are to Peter Parker. Only time will tell. 

As for me, I am filled with empathy for the displaced residents and overwhelming gratitude for the workers that saved the town.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.



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