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  • Bruce Baker

Response to the Flower Branch Fire

Near midnight on the night of August 10 a terrible gas leak explosion and devastating fire at the Flower Branch Apartments at the corner of Arliss and Piney Branch Road claimed 7 lives, injured 34, and destroyed the homes of 55 families, and traumatized an entire community. The explosion damaged windows across the Street at Central Square Shopping Center where CHEER has its office. The emergency response was tremendous and the subsequent outpouring of support for the families of those affected was overwhelming.

Casa de Maryland received so many donations of goods that they had to divert contributions to Interfaith Works , Montgomery Housing Partnership received more than $600,000 in cash donations, The County and other nonprofit service providers offered a flurry of resources and programs to the community.

Although it was pleasing to see such an outpouring of caring, there are many lessons to be learned. Reports from those inside the emergency shelter indicate that language and cultural barriers made it difficult to provide the relief that was readily available. The vast majority of those in the shelter were Spanish speakers with little English ability, but very few shelter staff could speak Spanish. For example, there was a pile of donated toys, car seats and goods for children and adults readily available, but they went largely untouched for a long time. The shelter residents did not understand that all that stuff was for them. They are not accustomed to taking anything unless they are specifically invited to do so.

Many services offered were not well utilized, because of the same language and culture gaps. Most significant, there was the lack of people who could listen and speak to shelter residents in their own language. All of the shelter residents had been through horrifying trauma, and were exhibiting signs of mental distress. Many adults and children stopped eating. Many could not sleep, and some of the children began to wet their beds. An 8 year old boy was too scared to go to the bathroom by himself. The County provided for mental health counselors, but many were not Spanish speakers, and would only meet the shelter residents once, so that many residents had no clear relationship to a single mental health practitioner. There was a need for a case manager for each family, but not all were able to get one before the Shelter closed on August 21.

St. Camillus Church has taken a lead role in addressing these needs. Father Jacek Orzechowski, the head of St. Camillus, called a meeting of County and local service and counseling agencies on September 6 to address the mental health and pastoral care needs of those affected by the fire. The Church has led an interfaith, cross sector effort to provide no cost counseling for those affected by the fire. Mary’s Center, which operates a health clinic just one black away, has offered mental health counselors at no cost as part of this effort. This effort is continuing and there remains more to be done, and more to be learned. CHEER is participating in this effort.

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