Saturday, March 11, 2017

Out of the ASHland will rise

Photo credit: Bo Rader, Wichita Eagle

My family has suffered and extremely tragic week. If you haven't seen it on the news, Ashland, KS and surrounding towns near Dodge City & Hutchinson, KS and Beaver, OK are all still on fire, 5 days after they began. Farmers and ranchers have lost over 800,000 acres of land, property, livestock and crops.

Perhaps the scariest moment I personally experienced, not being there with my family who reside in the Ashland/Dodge City area - was when I was trying to reach my mother as she was evacuating, and she would not answer her phone. I was able to reach my stepdad, Tom (I just call him dad), who told me he sent her the wrong direction South, not realizing the fires were coming up from that direction too. He told me that he was just on the phone with her, and flames were surrounding her. That fire was on both sides of the road. Her visibility was zero and she couldn't talk on the phone because she needed to focus on just getting out of the flames she was now surrounded by.

As a parent, do you remember what it was like getting a phone call that your child was sick or had been hurt? Your gut usually tells you how serious it is, and you know whether or not to be upset or panicked. When I was on the phone with my dad, my gut and heart just sank.

My nerdy brain knows that people die in fires, and not just because they burn up. The fire steals all the oxygen in the air, and carbon monoxide can silently consume you. People die from smoke inhalation. Towards the end of our conversation, I could no longer keep my composure. I had to get off the phone with my dad because he too was not yet safe. He was in fields near the fires refusing to evacuate to the shelter a few towns away. I knew he had to keep it together so he could get through everything happening. I have been in his shoes through 3 hurricanes and a flood. You don't have time for anything except survival in this situation. There is no time to be emotional.

I called my sister, Shala, whose family was evacuating to the shelter. She was supposed to meet my mom at the corner near the Sitka grain elevator. When she told me that she wasn't there, and they went on down the road assuming she had already gone on to the shelter. At this point, I may have become a bit more hysterical. I knew my mom was NOT OK. I felt the fear in my gut.

30 minutes later, my mom finally called me. I could hear in her voice she was shaken. I was SO relieved to hear her voice, but on the inside I was crying out to God, thanking him for sparing my mother. I knew she had survived by a miracle.

I wanted to curl up in a ball and just cry about all the thoughts that I could have lost her and what that would have been like. I was grateful I had somewhere to be that night, so that I wouldn't stew in the "what could have been's". I needed distraction.

I knew at that moment my step-brother Shane and wife Jenny's family had evacuated and made it to friends. I knew my family were all SAFE. And I could at least breathe a prayer of thanks and relief for that. So instead of stewing over the anxiety of wondering if any of them would lose their homes, businesses, livestock, livelihoods - I went to be with friends. I was still in shock over most of it, so I wasn't a total mess... yet.

I called my sister on my way home. She let me know how everyone was doing, but that Shane and Jenny had probably lost their home. I think I cried all the way home. We spend a lot of time with Shane and Jenny when we come home. My husband enjoys his guy time with Shane, and Jenny is just like a sister to me. She is one of the most generous people I have met. She makes soup and sandwiches to serve at every blood drive in town, she organizes VBS for her church, she leads fundraising events for the local early learning center and daycare in town. To think that this was someone who had lost everything, it just doesn't seem fair.

Photo credit: Bo Rader, Wichita Eagle

My sister Shala's family and my mother would be spending the night in the shelter at Coldwater High School. I cried thinking they had no other option, and they evacuated with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Hurricanes and floods are different like that - we get notice, we have time to plan. With wildfire, you don't get that luxury.

I spoke with my sister the next morning as they were being released from the shelter and were allowed to return to town. For now, the town was safe. My mom and sister's homes are in town. They were put on notice that they could evacuate again, to keep their vehicles packed and ready. Shala had gone to see my mom at work after they got back. My mom asked if she had seen the scorch, the burned areas my mom was trapped in the night before. Mom had experienced something very traumatic, knowing how harrowing it all was - that she was lucky to have made it out. They embraced in a way that perhaps neither had before. Death had been cheated.

Photo credit: Bo Rader, Wichita Eagle.
This is the the area where my mom became surrounded by the fire.

I talked Jenny briefly the next morning, and we cried together about their loss. And at least she let me know they were clothed, fed and had shelter. Her parents' home had somehow survived! The next day they would do the only thing they could - focus on clearing the dead livestock and try to regroup as best they can. This week would be focused on cleaning up and assessing damage. On their family ranch (of 30,000 acres) they estimated around 2500 cattle were lost. It would take some time to bury them and assess loss.

As the fires still burned, my dad still didn't know if his livestock had made it. Same for Shane who had livestock in the same area. So on the second night, my mother would let my dad sleep and keep watch. Tom has breathing problems and all the smoke he took in had taken a toll on his body. Mom was still shaken, and I think she was afraid to sleep - afraid to not wake to an evacuation order or phone call, afraid to once be caught again amid the burning flames. Earlier that day I had seen pictures from where my mom was trapped. It was a true miracle she made it out. I got chest pains seeing the pictures of where she was. It was like seeing horrific accident pictures of a mangled car, where your loved one survived. You can truly appreciate the miracle bestowed upon your survivor.

Wednesday, my sister had gone to check on my mom and dad. She stopped a moment to look at my mom's truck. She called me later to tell me that she has no idea how her tires didn't pop. That asphalt was so hot it had melted to her tires. God's angels were certainly watching over her that night. My dad and stepbrother were finally able to see if any of their livestock survive. By another miracle, they had gathered to eat on smaller patches of grass that somehow did not burn! Only one cow was lost.

By Friday night, my dad would be in the hospital, suffering from respiratory issues. And by Saturday a heart issue has been discovered. We are hoping he will return home on the mend very soon, provided the meds do their job. Mom needs a doctor too, as she was struggling with respiratory illness prior to the fires, but now she will focus on my dad and put her needs aside. I'm hoping they are both able to get the medical advice they both need, and the medicines to heal their bodies, now ravaged by exhaustion and other things.

Here in Louisiana, we know first hand post-flood, that recovery is a marathon. That this will take six months to two years to recover and restore only part of what was lost. The ranching community is one of grit and strength. By helping one another, they will get through this. Their community, their land, their lives - they will rise out of the ASHES and live again. They will rise to the occasion of helping thy neighbor. By remaining #AshlandStrong, they will find their road back to a new normal.

Photo credit: Denise Cleckler

I wanted to share with you a note I sent to my family. I hope it offers anyone reading the same encouragement I hope to offer them as they recover.

Friends and loved ones –

When this disaster began, I immediately thought of the song I used to sing my medically fragile son to sleep by, “Be Not Afraid.” Since here in Louisiana we flooded in August, this song immediately came to mind. Here are some lyrics to offer possibly some of the same comfort it provides me:

You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst. 

You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way. 

You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand. 

You shall see the face of God and live. 

Be not afraid.
I go before you always;
Come follow me,
and I will give you rest.

If you pass through raging waters in the sea, you shall not drown. 

If you walk amid the burning flames, you shall not be harmed. 

If you stand before the pow'r of hell and death is at your side, 

know that I am with you through it all. 

Be not afraid.
I go before you always;
Come follow me,
and I will give you rest. 

Blessed are your poor, for the kingdom shall be theirs. 

Blest are you that weep and mourn, for one day you shall laugh. 

And if wicked men insult and hate you all because of me, 
blessed, blessed are you! 

Be not afraid.
I go before you always;
Come follow me,
and I will give you rest.

Here are some scripture verses that I have found comfort in through this situation, and I hope that they bring you some encouragement too:

“Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.”
‭‭Jeremiah‬ ‭1:8‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬

“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.””
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭12:2‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭41:10‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.”
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭42:16‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬

“and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.”
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭61:3‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬

“They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.””
‭‭Jeremiah‬ ‭17:8‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬

“After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.””
‭‭Nehemiah‬ ‭4:14‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬

“The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?” The woman said, “I see a ghostly figure coming up out of the earth.””
‭‭1 Samuel‬ ‭28:13‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬

“So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?””
‭‭Hebrews‬ ‭13:6‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭1:3-4‬ ‭NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬ (For survivors not affected, and friends who will support recovery)

“He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”
‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭1:4‬ ‭NLT‬‬‬‬‬‬

“Then David continued, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Don’t be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. He will see to it that all the work related to the Temple of the LORD is finished correctly.”
‭‭1 Chronicles‬ ‭28:20‬ ‭NLT‬‬‬‬‬‬

“But Jesus overheard them and said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.””
‭‭Mark‬ ‭5:36‬ ‭NLT‬‬‬‬‬‬

“So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭10:31‬ ‭NLT‬‬‬‬‬‬

“And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.”
‭‭Luke‬ ‭12:7‬ ‭NLT‬‬‬‬‬‬

We love you, your community and neighbors love you. Don’t be afraid to accept the help when it comes. This will be a MARATHON recovery. The enthusiasm of strangers and even family will eventually taper off, and you will still be in recovery – so please accept the blessings people bestow upon you while they are willing. You will be blessing those you allow to show you kindness.

Much love from Louisiana. Out of the ASHland will rise… stay #AshlandStrong.

Kodi L. Wilson

Photo credit: Bo Rader, Wichita Eagle